Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Director Spotlight #10.12: Francois Truffaut's Day for Night

Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. September’s director is consummate cinephile Francois Truffaut.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the movie in question.

Grade: 96 (A)

If ever a film was more romantic about the movies than Day for Night, I don’t know it. Francois Truffaut spent the early 1970s trying out new styles, from the silent film throwback The Wild Child to the impressionist painting influenced costume drama Two English Girls to the farce A Gorgeous Girl Like Me (not covered here because it’s not available on any form of home video). But Truffaut is a film lover above all else, and was rarely happier than when he was discussing, reviewing, watching, or shooting films. And so came Day for Night, a film so enraptured by the possibilities of film that it might as well be called Sight and Sound.

Ferrand (Truffaut) has begun production on Meet Pamela, a studio melodrama co-produced by France and England. Ferrand is hassled with damn near every problem imaginable for a film production: one of the leading men, Alphonse (Jean-Pierre Leaud), has brought his girlfriend Liliane (Dani) onto production to be a script girl, but her lack of passion for the project shows, and she doesn’t share Alphonse’s hopes for marriage. Leading lady Julie (Jacqueline Bisset) has recently suffered a nervous breakdown and married a much older man. Another actress, Severine (Valentina Cortese), is a drunken, emotional diva who has trouble remembering her lines and blocking. One cast member gets pregnant without telling anyone. Ferrand doesn’t have enough time to shoot. But in spite of all the difficulty, making the movie is not a series of trials and tribulations, but a journey for passionate people who adore their art.
Day for Night is one of Truffaut’s most accessible and most commercial films up to this point. It is also one of his richest and most exciting.  An opening credits sequence calls back to the wonders of Walt Disney’s Fantasia as music is represented by abstract sound waves; Truffaut follows up with a dedication to Lillian and Dorothy Gish, the great silent film stars. What follows is a tribute to all things film- the opening tracking shot is visually lush as it follows Jean-Pierre Leaud during a crowd scene, only to be revealed as part of a film shoot. But the artificiality of the situation doesn’t make it any less beautiful or impressive. If anything, Truffaut is as fascinated by the process of filmmaking as he is by the films themselves. What starts out seeming as real as anything is revealed to be as REEL as anything (I hate myself), and it’s clear which Truffaut finds more fascinating. Truffaut shows us all the pieces of making a film- a set or a prop that, while clearly fake in real life, seems real on the silver screen; rushes, as everyone scrutinizes a day’s work; a gorgeous crane shot that reveals characters setting up a crane shot; tracking shots that show everyone hard at work; and the process of “day for night”, or shooting a “night” scene during the daytime. It’s one of Truffaut’s more overtly formalistic movies, and wonderfully so. Georges Delarue’s lush, classical score only further idealizes the filmmaking process.

Truffaut doesn’t just acknowledge his influenes in Day for Night- he features a scene where Ferrand opens up a package filled with books about his favorite directors (roll call: Bunuel, Fellini, Dreyer, Renoir). Truffaut emphasizes certain influences above others- the Renoir-like humanism and fluidity of the camerawork is notable, as is a Hitchcockian attention to detail in how the set-pieces are set up. There’s a bit of Nicholas Ray-like alienation, albeit in a less florid and angry way than in past Truffaut features. But perhaps most notable are three major influences: Fellini, who plays in with an odd dream sequence that turns from slightly frightening to gorgeous; Welles, whose Citizen Kane shows up in said dream sequence, a catalyst for Ferrand’s movie love; and Andre Bazin, Truffaut’s critical predecessor who encouraged personal films above all else.

The sense of alienation in the film is less about anger towards society and more about an inability among the cast and crew to be truly satisfied in life. Alphonse is little more than a big kid, perhaps the best Jean-Pierre Leaud surrogate Truffaut ever created. He’s romantic about films (he goes to see a movie almost every night) and about Lilliane, but he’s had an unhappy childhood and he expects too much of his girlfriends. One might find him annoying if he weren’t so sympathetic and sad. Lilliane could be painted as a villain who uses Alphonse, but she’s simply overwhelmed by his neediness. Severine (as played by Cortese in a phenomenal, Oscar-nominated performance) is a bundle of nerves and overfriendliness who drinks and talks too much, and her bungling of a major scene is outright comical…until we learn that her son is dying of leukemia. And then there’s Julia, a nervous wreck of a woman who married an older man for stability, who sleeps with a broken-hearted Alphonse to keep him from quitting production, and who nearly falls apart when the impulsive Alphonse tells her husband.

Ferrand consoles Alphonse with this- “life never runs smoothly. That’s only in the movies. We are only happy in our work”. Here, Ferrand serves as both a nurturing father-figure to the brooding Alphonse (just as Truffaut was to Leaud) and as a relatively steady center to the big circus on display. Ferrand no doubt has his own personal problems, but he’s focused on the film, and the struggle is what’s so exciting about filmmaking. They’re making a clichéd Hollywood melodrama- husband and wife meet up with husband’s parents, father starts affair with young wife- but they enjoy the work nonetheless. Ferrand has to make decisions about every little thing even if he doesn’t know it’s right, but it’s all part of the joy. They have to redo a complicated scene, but they’re in it for the love of it, not the money. They have to deal with a cat that won’t go where it needs to go, but when they get the shot it’s magic. Everyone sleeps with everyone (something that anyone with experience in theatre or film will corroborate). Even when a major cast member dies unexpectedly, the team comes together to finish the film in a new, creative way, everyone is proud of their work, and there’s a feeling of sadness as they move on from a project they dedicated their lives to. Life may be complicated, but the movies are worth it.

Day for Night would be one of Francois Truffaut’s most successful films- the film won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, Truffaut received his only Best Director nomination, and, most importantly, it has become perhaps the de facto movie about making movies. Interestingly, Jean-Luc Godard was not moved. Truffaut’s former Cahiers du Cinema colleague and French New Wave friend had become embittered with commercial filmmaking and too obsessed with political filmmaking to focus on anything else- a line in Day for Night, “why don’t you make political films”, could be seen as a jab towards Godard’s self-righteousness as much as a concern from the apolitical Truffaut. Godard wrote Truffaut a letter denouncing him for making a film that was “a lie”, while Truffaut responded in a friendship-ending letter that accused Godard of being a hypocrite who put down other peoples’ films in order to increase the status of his own (for more proof, see Godard’s cranky musings on Quentin Tarantino and Steven Spielberg). How Godard could be so filled with bile that he couldn’t see Truffaut’s genuine passion is beyond me. Day for Night isn’t just romantic about the movies- it’s a movie that makes me wonder how people could possibly not be romantic about the movies.

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