Day for Night (1973): Truffaut’s Charming, Self-Reflexive Love Letter to the Joy and Chaos of Filmmaking

Day for Night may not be a great film, or one of Truffaut’s best pictures, but it’s nonetheless a gem, a loving tribute to filmmaking and one of the most poignant and good-hearted features about the inherently chaotic process of filmmaking.

Inspired by 81/2, Federico Fellini’s 1963 Oscar-winning, Day for Night is a personal, even autobiographical work in which Truffaut engages in a love affair with cinema qua cinema, trying to share his contagious joy with the public. Truffaut plays a famous film director named Ferrand, who is in the midst of helming “I Want You to Meet Pamela,” (aka “Meet Pamela”), a feature shot in and around the La Victorine studios in South France.

But the movie in not about Ferrand—it’s about his cast and crew and the actors who play those roles.  First comes Truffaut’s alter-ego, temperamental actor named Alphonse (Jean-Pierre Leaud who collaborated with Truffaut in a series of films about Antoine Doinel beginning with “The 400 Blows”). Alphonse wanders around the set with typical Truffaut-like question, “Are women really magic?” (Try to answer that!)

The international cast includes Julie (Jacqueline Bisset), a famous Hollywood actress recovering from a nervous breakdown, about to arrive with her husband-doctor. She is to co-star with Alexandre (Jean-Pierre Aumont), a veteran actor, a “continental lover” in the mold of Charles Boyer, though he may be a latent homosexual.

Most colorful and memorable is Severine (played to the hilt by the Italian actress Valentina Cortese), a loud, alcoholic Italian actress, who once was a great screen lover opposite Alexandre, but now cannot remember even the simplest line of dialogue.

Then there’s Stacey (Alexandra Stewart), a bit player whose advanced pregnancy causes scheduling and shooting problems.

The behind-the-scenes crew includes the inarticulate prop man Bernard (Bernard Menez); the flaky and chatty makeup girl Odile (Nike Arrighi); the script girl Lilianna (Dani), who doesn’t care about the film and got the job because she slept with Alphonse; unit manager Lajoie (Gaston Joly); producer Bertrand (Jean Champion); and the all-important production assistant, Joelle (the very young Nathalie Baye, who would become a major star in a couple of years).

As in every Truffaut film, the characters, and the actors who play them, are far more significant than the plot, which is slender, like a skeleton. Running around, Ferrand tries to keep his head above his shoulders, so that the production will stay on track and under budget. But he’s facing an endless sream of crises, created by his emotionally unstable and vulnerable actors, who are like children. Thus, Alphonse and Julie make a mistake by sleeping together for one night.

At one point, even the black kitten conspires against the director, refusing to drink milk on a tray, and so another, more obedient cat is brought.

Godard (and others) have criticized the film, claiming that, as a director, Truffaut hides behind his alter ego Ferrand, and he interacts only professionally with his cast and crew. Ferrand remains an enigma and we never find out what troubles him as a person, which gives him an aura of superiority, as if he is above the “petty” and “mundane” concerns of his players.

Replete with inside jokes and poignant allusions to other films and filmmakers, “Day for Night” is a richly dense, self-reflexive film that goes way beyond its surface narrative.

The movie had deservedly won the Oscar Award for Best Foreign Language Film, and also garnered a directing nomination on Truffaut (see below).

Oscar Context:

Oscar Nominations: 4

Foreign-Language Film

Director: Francois Truffaut

Supporting Actress: Valentina Cortese

Screenplay (Original): Francois Truffaut, Jean-Louis Richard, Suzanne Schiffman

 

Oscar Awards: 1

 

Foreign Language Film

The winner of the Best Director Oscar was Coppola for “The Godfather, Part II. Robert Towne received the Original Screenplay Oscar for the noir “Chinatown,” directed by Polanski.

Ingrid Bergman won the Supporting Actress Oscar for Sidney Lumet’s thriller, “Murder on the Orient Express.” In her acceptance speech, she apologized to Cortesa for winning the prize.

In 1973, the 18th year of the foreign-language Oscar category, the five nominees were:

Day for Night (France)

The House on Chelouche Street (Israel)

L’Invitation (Switzerland)

The Pedestrian (Federal Republic of Germany)

Turkish Delight (the Netherlands)

 

Real/Reel Impact

Day for Night is one of two Truffaut films featured on Time magazine’s list of the 100 Best Films of the Century; the other is his striking 1959 debut, The 400 Blows, a seminal film of the French New Wave.

Day for Night is considered to be one of the most charmingly detailed movies about the process of filmmaking.

Nonetheless, Truffaut’s colleague and New Wave co-founder leader Jean-Luc Godard charged Truffaut of making a “dishonest” film, because the scenario failed to include the personal problems of the director himself (played by Truffaut).

Truffaut responded with a letter critical of Godard, after which the two former friends had a major falling out and never met again.

Truffaut died of brain cancer in 1984, at the young age of 52.

The film was screened out of competition at the 1973 Cannes Film Fest (many felt it should have been in the main competition)

Day for Night won the 1974 BAFTA Award for Best Film and the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.

Vet Italian actress Valentina Cortese was nominated for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar, for playing an aging and alcoholic actress who does not remember her lines and cannot master her exits and entrances, even with huge cue cards. Instead, Ingrid Bergman undeservedly won the kudo for a tiny role in Lumet’s Murder on the Orient Express; Bergman herself was shocked and expressed disappointment with the Academy.

Truffaut earned his first and only nomination for the Best Director Oscar Award.

The film also received awards for Best Director, Best Original Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress for Valentine Cortese from both the New York Film Critics Circle and the more cerebral and prestigious National Society of Film Critics.

In 1973, the 18th year of the foreign-language Oscar category, the five nominees were:
Day for Night (France)
The House on Chelouche Street (Israel)
L’Invitation (Switzerland)
The Pedestrian (Federal Republic of Germany)
Turkish Delight (the Netherlands)

 

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