Master Shot: Francois Truffaut’s Day For Night (1973) – Criterion Blu-ray review
One of the best films about filmmaking, because it’s literally about the making. It doesn’t even matter what’s being made. The making is reward enough.
Day For Night
(Francois Truffaut, 1973)
“I am not interested in any film that does not pulse,” said Francois Truffaut – saying that to pulse needed to depict either the joy or the agony of filmmaking. The result is Day For Night, one of the definitive films about filmmaking because it captures exactly these myriad emotions.
In broadest outline, this is the archetype for the genre because it is the simplest: a crew makes a film and struggles with independently-minded cats and drunken actors; the cast fall in and out of love; the set is beset by hangers-on; and the director resets his ambition from masterpiece to just getting through the whole thing unscathed. From such material dozens of films have been made.
But Truffaut takes a more philosophical viewpoint. Here’s a film about the tortuous relationship between truth and fiction. From the title onwards, with its reference to how cinema fakes reality, the film shows the old man behind the curtain. A bit of wall is erected high up in the air to suggest an entire building; a man doubles as a woman for a death-defying stunt. Even the lead actor donning a moustache becomes part of the artifice.
And yet Truffaut has fun. The film being made is very generic in its plot, and stilted in its delivery – there are long sequences showing the monotony of repeating the same scene over and over again, the actors bound by their duty to hit specific marks. But the film we’re watching is full of extraordinary sequence shots, the camera panning and tracking to capture remarkably naturalistic movements and dialogue.
What’s going on? Most films about filmmaking assume that the banality of the process leads into the profundity of the finished product. Yet Truffaut tricks us, shows us the exact opposite of this because the finished product is a melodramatic trifle and the process is the real star. Even here, he’s toying with the illusion by bringing in real-life elements, not least his own casting as the director-within-the-director. Then there are the autobiographical nods to his youth of stealing posters of Citizen Kane, or referring to Julie Baker as the actress from the film with the car chase – a direct reference to Jacqueline Bisset starring in Bullitt.
In the film’s most indulgent moment, Truffaut throws down a dozen or so books about directors he admires. It’s his generation’s canon – Hitchcock, Hawks, Bunuel, Bergman… and Godard. The presence of his friend and colleague shows how Truffaut is thinking in terms of a tradition: the French New Wave as evolution, not revolution. And this is a film that might have been made at any time. Perhaps that’s why an irate Godard fell out with Truffaut after seeing this film, but he’s missing the point. It’s not about making grand statements, or trying to change the course of cinematic history. It’s about taking cinema’s pulse.