Since all New Wave films were, directly or indirectly, fascinated with filmmaking, it isn’t exactly a surprise that one small slice of celluloid would eventually literalize this subtext. And since most New Wave filmmakers both loved and doubted cinema all at once, it isn’t exactly a surprise that the resulting film would be Day for Night, Francois Truffaut’s semi-poisoned pen love letter to the joy of making cinema. It might be assumed that the joy of cinema follows, but that is not part and parcel with Truffaut’s vision. In Day for Night, cinema production is a circus, but the film that results is a wash. Day for Night is not an ode to the finished product, the destination, but to the production, the journey. In an oddly humanizing bit of self-love, Truffaut paints a director as an enthusiast more than a madman. He doesn’t care if the figure has talent or not. The fact that they want to be making movies is enough.
Set on the troubled carnival of production for a French romance about a woman who falls for her lover’s father (it is exactly as drippy as it sounds), Day for Night is a farcical equalizer of all cinema, a paean to everyone who makes movies, and a living homage tot he trapeze act of shifty-eyed filmmaking. It is a film about the high of filmmaking, positioned partways between the hyperbolic insomnia and delusion of 8 ½ and the flippant mania of Singin’ in the Rain. Admittedly, the mixture isn’t always a volcanically reactive agent; Day for Night is probably a touch too slight and whimsical for its own good, whilst being too tempered by its bitterness to achieve the hurtling heights of Singin’. The end product is something of a jack of all trades, but then, it is about jacks. And wouldn’t you know, they come in all trades.
Truffaut’s film tackles everyone from the stuffy, indifferent producer to the insecure, bellicose hot-to-trot cinema rock star to the diva lost amidst her own image to the lowly script girl, as bemused by and entangled within the vise of production as anyone else. For most of these figures, the finished film is almost incidental to the glass menagerie of rampaging conflict and embattled personal emotion that accompanies the set. There’s a touch of scorching dry humor – when a star dies very late in the production, a moment’s grace is prematurely taken to the grave by the need to haphazardly finish the film whilst hiding the star’s death. But the film cannot hide, even under its darkest grimace, the delighted eyes it has for the production. Truffaut, if he sees himself in the leather jacket-clad director he gallantly plays with no ego here, loves fixing problems, or simply facing them. One is reminded of the many actors and actresses who report never witnessing their finished productions; the mystique, or the tiresome bother, of the production is all the need, and they do not want to sacrifice a minute of it to care for the finished product.
What is most satisfying about Day for Night is how messy it is. Truffaut’s film dalliances with anyone it can, sipping their stories before cavorting onto the next. The camera dances through the production as if waiting for a side trek or a tangent to draw it away from its ostensible goal; it is a camera that lives for the gossip on set, an enthusiast of movie making just like its camera operator. It captures the human characters like fish in an aquarium, freely floating between fellow prisoners only so that they don’t notice they are all entombed in the same watery grave. Yet, because it is all they know, they relish in what might be hidden in the oyster, where the algae came from, or why their friend is floating with its face up at the top of the tank.
Most enticing about Day for Night, however, is the blending of production and product at not only the diegetic level, but at the visual and aural. Actors and actresses not only face some of the troubles their characters in the film do, but the camera of our film bleeds into and out of the film the characters are making, transitioning between backstage shots, so to speak, and shots that ostensibly will feature in Meet Pamela, the film they vacantly hope to release. Truffaut’s darling commentary on the way cinema is produced as a bundle of nerves is most vocal in the sequences where the camera becomes the camera of Meet Pamela. Viewed from the perspective of Meet Pamela, the images evoke casual histrionics and ersatz melodrama. Meanwhile, threshed through the lens of Day for Night, the same shots merely halt the characters and question their frailties. If the dialectics between artifice and reality were the white whale of the New Wave, Day for Night harpoons that debate with the off-the-cuff looseness of an adolescent artist and the gravid, weary poetry of cinema’s final words.
Speaking of dying cinema, Day for Night was released in 1973, the tail end of the wave. In fact, it was released in the same year as The Mother and the Whore, arguably the first gasp of what we might consider the post-New Wave. That film also utilized the permanently unsure innocence of Jean-Pierre Léaud as a mostly indifferent hedonist played far more scabrously and with a concrete slab more cruel indifference than he is played here. The characters share similar features, both physical and circumstantial, but the differences couldn’t be more clear. It was a passing of the torch, so to speak, from how a character would be played within one style to another. If so, Truffaut’s film is as much a benefactor to the New Wave as any film ever was; the way it ribs at everyone it can without ever summoning an ounce of malice or disdain for them is awe-inspiringly warming. As a paean to cinemacraft, and to the New Wave, it announces that it has seen all the foibles and the failings it possibly can, as well as all the frailties. So much so that it has no choice but to just let its guard down, as well as its critical faculties, and join along, hand-in-hand with the production. Thus is the magic of cinema, and with Day for Night, you almost want Truffaut to be the world’s house filmmaker