Review of The Criterion Collection Blu-ray edition. Day for Night d. François Truffaut (1973) Spine: #769 Blu-ray Release Date: August 18, 2015 Screen captures below are taken from The Criterion Collection Blu-ray disc, but resolution has been reduced from 1920x1080 to 900x506 and slightly compressed. You may click on them to view the 900x506 image.
Though I’d never seen it before sitting down to watch the new Criterion Collection release — indeed had never given it much thought, falling, as it does, after Truffaut’s auspicious years as an instigator and purveyor of the French New Wave — François Truffaut’s delightful and pensive thirteenth feature, Day for Night, may be my favorite work by the French master.
Truffaut, who stirred things up in the mid-1950s when he began railing against the French filmmaking status quo as he saw it, stepped up to the plate himself and made what many consider to be one of the most important, and one of the best, films of all time, his 1959 debut The 400 Blows. Together with a number of other French filmmakers, and we should mention Jean-Luc Godard right up front here, Truffaut fed the French New Wave fire through the 1960s.
But in the late 1960s, when the French New Wave had pretty much run its course and the young filmmakers who helmed it had produced a relatively large body of work and had themselves become part of the establishment, Truffaut was getting criticized for no longer holding to the spirit of the French New Wave. It’s fitting, then, that after more than a decade as a prolific filmmaker who initiated his career seeking to instill into cinema something fresh and meaningful, Truffaut got reflective and created Day for Night.
The French title for the film is La Nuit Américaine, a term that refers to the process of shooting a scene in daylight and, through a variety of methods, making it look like night. In English, this technique — or illusion — is called day for night. Day for Night is a rich film, but at its core it is an examination of the illusions produced by cinema contrasted with the messiness of real life. It looks at the process of making a film, at the day-to-day compromises for practical and fiscal reasons, at the dumb-luck when something works out, at the tedium of shooting and reshooting and waiting and waiting, at the various times when each person thinks it’s never going to work or, even if it does, it simply isn’t worth it, at many things that must do a lot to dispel the magic and idealism that may bring someone to filmmaking in the first place.
And yet, in spite of the doubts and troubles it explores, Day for Night remains magical, light-hearted, good-natured, and affectionate.
When the film begins, we watch a young man (Jean-Pierre Léaud) approach an older man (Jean-Pierre Aumont) on a street. They stare each other down.
And then, the young man slaps the older man hard across the face, only we clearly see that there was no contact made, our expectations falter when the illusion fails, and we hear the words “Cut!” We’ve been watching a scene in the process of being filmed, and the director, a good-natured, patient director named Ferrand, played by none other than Truffaut himself, sets the complicated scene up again for another take.
Day for Night features an extensive cast of characters — some playing actors, some playing crew — who have come together to film Je Vous Présente Pamela (or, Meet Pamela) a film that looks rather terrible, though most likely it’s because we’re seeing how often it just isn’t working out the way the director and producer have envisioned it.
These characters, when not working directly on the film, which for some of them is quite often, are nonetheless locked together in the same relatively small space, looking for things to do while the nuts and bolts of filmmaking goes on around them. They are sometimes disillusioned, sometimes outrightly cynical, and we see that for most of them this is a job, a way to earn some money, a momentary necessity they pass through while their real lives continue without them. They are anxious to join their real lives again, to become unshackled from Meet Pamela. We get to enjoy a look at the artifice, while understanding that that artifice itself affects how these characters look at their jobs.
Meanwhile, Ferrand must not only keep the cast and crew together to get the job done, but he must also work with the producers and the financiers and make calls about how to get the film finished despite numerous setbacks
Three times we see Ferrand lying in bed, seeming to suffer from some kind of nightmare. When we finally get a look at the full dream, we see that the dream itself is not a nightmare; rather, it’s a haunting reminder of why he’s doing all of this in the first place. This stuff actually means something, maybe not the same thing to everyone, but something nonetheless.
Day for Night, though over forty years old, is one of my favorite personal discoveries this year, and it’s been a pretty great year of discoveries for me.
- The first supplement on the disc is another visual essay by :: kogonada, called “Dreams of a Cinema” (11:27). It explores the three dream sequences in the film, along with the sequences leading up to them, and I found it insightful. I particularly enjoyed the connections :: kogonada points out between the film being made in Day for Night and Truffaut’s own film The Soft Skin.
- The next feature was my favorite: an interview with film scholar Dudley Andrew about the riff between Jean-Luc Godard and Truffaut, which seems to have started with a letter Godard wrote to Truffaut out of disgust after Godard walked out of Day for Night. The interview looks at the relationship between the two and uses that to explore some of the ideas in the French New Wave (20:35).
- “Day for Night: An Appreciation” (17:09) is a look at the film (and appreciation of the film) with Annette Insdorf. She talks about the various people involved, which was very welcome since after watching the film I felt I’d gotten to know so many fine actors and characters.
- The disc also comes with a host of interviews, more than I remember seeing on any other release. We get new interviews with cinematographer Pierre-William Glenn (12:58) and assistant editor Martine Barraqué (12:56) as well as archival interviews with Truffaut (8:11), editor Yann Dedet (3:42), and actors Jean-Pierre Aumont (6:25), Nathalie Baye (11:42), Jacqueline Bisset (9:00), Dani (4:03), and Bernard Menez (3:33). As I mentioned above, it’s nice to hear more from so many of these people because I came to appreciate their work in this film.
- The set ends with a bucket of curiosities: “Truffaut Shoots Day for Night,” a 2:48 minute newsreel; “On Day for Night,” a 1973 episode of Pour le cinema featuring Truffaut; another news clip (2:01) featuring Truffaut winning the Best Director and Best Film at the National Society of Film Critics; and the trailer (2:47).
- Fold-out insert featuring more of Roman Muradov’s work as well as an essay by David Cairns.