Easily one of the best movies ever made about the process of making movies, this Oscar-winning François Truffaut feature isn’t precisely the love letter to cinema that one might expect from a critic-turned-director. Rather, it’s a prismatic examination of the gypsy lifestyle shared by movie professionals, who form intimate bonds during the crucible of production only to separate when the shooting stops. Moreover, by giving equal screen time to the private lives of his characters, Truffaut playfully dramatizes the way artists weave illusion into their “normal” activities. For instance, Truffaut appears in the film as a director who is not named François Truffaut but who shares many qualities with his real-life avatar. The film character, Ferrand, is a partially deaf cineaste telling a story about a romantic triangle, and one of Truffaut’s early masterpieces—1962’s Jules and Jim—is a quintessential triangle story.
In Day for Night, which is named for the practice of shooting daylight scenes with filters so they appear as if they were shot in the evening (a tidy metaphor representing the theme of illusion), Ferrand struggles to complete a movie called Meet Pamela. The movie-within-the-movie is a melodrama about a young man whose bride falls in love with her new father-in-law. Yet the interpersonal fireworks happening around the production are even more intense than those being captured by Ferrand’s camera. His leading lady, British actress Julie Baker (Jacqueline Bisset), is recovering from a nervous breakdown. His supporting players, Alexandre (Jean-Pierre Aumont) and Severine (Valentina Cortese) are former lovers whose reunion sends Severine into an emotional spiral. Ferrand’s young leading man, Alphonse (Jean-Pierre Léaud), is an impulsive romantic whose bed-hopping causes problems throughout production. And so on.
In lesser hands, this material could have devolved into soap opera. Truffaut ensures that never happens, because he moves gracefully between farcical scenes of narcissistic tantrums, tender passages depicting sensitive people in crisis, and vivid vignettes illustrating the myriad things that go wrong (and right) on movie sets every day. The crowd shot botched by one wayward extra. The dialogue scene thrown off-kilter because a drunken actress can’t remember which door to use for her exit. The crew member who abruptly quits because his mother falls ill. Truffaut’s character sums up the magical madness with his voiceover: “Before starting, I hope to make a fine movie. The problems begin and I aim lower. I hope to make the movie . . . period.”
Filled with amusing mishaps, believable emotions, painful complications, and precious moments capturing the joy of creation, Day for Night underscores the notion that it’s a miracle any film is ever finished, given the thousand distractions that arise along the way. Further, Day for Night is elegantly made and wonderfully acted. Bisset, who performs much of her role in French, gives a credible turn as a troubled soul, and she’s also at her most mesmerizingly beautiful. Cortese, who earned an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress, is entertainingly overwrought, while Aumont has fun at the expense of movie-star vanity. And Truffaut, who occasionally acted in his own films (as well as the 1977 Steven Spielberg epic Close Encounters of the Third Kind), gives an unsurprisingly authentic turn playing a version of himself.
Released in America both in dubbed and subtitled versions (the subtitled being preferable), Day for Night won the Oscar for 1973’s Best Foreign Film.
Day for Night: RIGHT ON