I’m not sure if there was ever a filmmaker that lived who was more in love with movies than Francois Truffaut. Starting out as a film critic for the famed film magazine cahier du cinema, only then to transition to one of the most influential directors of the French New Wave, Truffaut was a romantic when it came to movies. He was the type of director who poured a lot of himself into his films, but his love of cinema was no more prevalent than in his 1973 masterpiece “Day for Night”.
“Day for Night” chronicles the lives and loves of the cast and crew during the filming of a fictional tragic melodrama entitled “Meet Pamela”. The film within the film isn’t really what matters here, it’s more or less a macguffin in order to bring the audience into the movie world these people live and breathe.
Truffaut himself plays one of the principle leads, as the director named Ferrand who is more or less a rather transparent Truffaut alter ego. He is fixated on the making of the film , whilst also dealing with the minor and major hiccups that come throughout the production.
The lives of the other characters come into play and at times cause disruption with the film. Among them are the lead actress Julie Baker (Jaqueline Bisset) who is recovering from a recent nervous breakdown, Alphonse (Truffaut regular Jean-Pierre Leaud), the young lead who is in love with an unfaithful script supervisor, and then there’s Severine (Valentina Cortez) an aging actress who turns to drinking to cope with the thought of her son’s leukemia. There is also Alexandre (Jean-Pierre Aumont), the dashing older matinée idol who begins a relationship with a younger man he meets regularly at the local airport, a minor plot device which turns tragic later on. As these personal dramas unfold, the crew of “Meet Pamela” soldier on to finish the film on time and under budget.
The wonderful thing about “Day for Night” is how Truffaut brings his sense of humanity and naturalism to the film. He moves his camera around effortlessly capturing small pieces of character moments, as if the audience was eavesdropping on an actual film being made. I don’t think Truffaut received enough credit for his later more refined films, he is mostly remembered for his early more innovative new wave films like “The 400 Blows” and “Jules and Jim”. But Truffaut here takes a page from one of his idols Jean Renoir with how he catches his actors weaving in and out of scenes, and concentrating both on the foreground and background of the scenes. It’s something we mostly associate with someone like Altman, but Truffaut did it just as well.
Above all, “Day for Night” is a film for film lovers. One of the main questions it asks is if making a film is more important than life. It certainly is for the people of “Meet Pamela”, for them, the film is all that matters. By the end, there are delays, there are affairs between crew members, there is even a death, but none of that gets in the way of completing the film. For these people it’s what keeps them going, and what gives their life meaning.
As a life long film fan, I instantly feel a kinship to “Day for Night”. There have been all kinds of movies made about making movies, but “Day for Night” is the most romantic. Truffaut has created a love story about film. For him this affair began at a young age as a young boy stealing still pictures of “Citizen Kane” outside a movie house, a memory the film depicts through a series of dreams Ferrand has.
When I was in Paris a few years ago, one of the things I wanted to do was visit Truffaut’s grave site. He was buried inside a large cemetery near the Moulin Rouge. When I found it, something there made me smile. On the tombstone where one might normally find roses left by a loved one, there were instead small rolls of film left no doubt by admirers and fans. I thought there could be no finer tribute to a filmmaker who lived and breathed film as much as Truffaut did. For someone like Truffaut, I don’t think there was ever a difference between film and life, for him they were one and the same.