‘Day for Night’ Is a Film Master’s Passionate Ode to His Craft

François Truffaut never produced a more meaningful or downright entertaining tribute to the art of film and filmmaking than 1973's Day for Night.

Of all of film auteur and French New Wave veteran François Truffaut’s celebrated films, Day for Night is simultaneously one of his most conventional and one of his most peculiar. As a melodramatic comedy that combines traditional character- and scenario-driven plotlines with experimental and often metafictional narrative techniques, the film may also be the purest and most coherent product of the director’s defining filmmaking ethos. While his indisputably classic works like The 400 Blows and Jules and Jim were all some mixture of melodramatic, Hollywood-style convention and subversive, anti-establishment technique, it’s in Day for Night, relatively late in his career, where Truffaut actually perfected the formula for combining his characteristically charming and human characters with his delicate, artful experimentalism.

In fact, both are present even in the plot synopsis: a seasoned film director (played by Truffaut himself) leads a diverse cast of misfits and professionals — including lead actor Alphonse, played by Truffaut’s dearest and most frequent collaborator Jean-Pierre Léaud, and star actress Julie Baker (Jacqueline Bisset) — in the production of a standard French melodrama, and together they navigate the trials and tribulations of a complicated, high-pressure shoot, their tenuous professional relationships, and real-world romantic drama. The film is as self-referential as one would expect, but it isn’t overtly so, and it never breaks the fourth wall, unlike the films of Truffaut’s contemporary and one-time friend Jean-Luc Godard and specifically his own filmmaking drama, 1963’s Contempt — ironically one of his more accessible and “reeled-in” films.

Instead, the film revels in demystifying the illusions of moviemaking. We’re shown trick candles, rain machines, fake snow and prop guns; we see the cast and crew shooting take after take of the same elaborately constructed scenes; we see stunt doubles do stunts, actors hide their lines on set, and cameramen mess up their focus. The occupational ordeals are real, only slightly heightened for comedy; it’s clear Truffaut wanted to make an authentic film that genuinely captured the joys and perils of filmmaking while revealing some of the intricacies of his craft.

To that point, Truffaut’s director character, crucially, is never dismissive, disparaging, or cynical about his co-workers or the film’s world. He’s supportive when his actors behave unprofessionally petty; he actively communicates with everyone in his crew; when he’s told of financial and scheduling issues, he immediately figures out how he can make it work regardless. Day for Night shows a filmmaker in love not only with the product of all this hard work, but also in love with the lifestyle of making movies — not the glitz and glamour of Hollywood celebrity, but the experience of film production itself — cast and crew love triangles and logistical tragedies included.

One of Day for Night’s closest aesthetic relatives is Robert Altman’s 1975 masterpiece Nashville, a similarly tragicomic, ensemble-based satire of the entertainment industry — in that film’s case, the American country music scene. Both have a good sense of ironic wit, are playfully mocking of their many idiosyncratic characters, and are shot almost in the cinéma vérité style, taking a very observational and self-reflexive approach to their subjects.

Fittingly, among Altman’s greatest lifelong inspirations was French film master Jean Renoir and his monolithic 1939 opus The Rules of the Game. Renoir’s film, a comedy of manners whose vast cast of characters range from the servant to the aristocratic classes, was meant as a subversive jab at French bourgeois society, namely their frivolous activities and cavalier attitudes at the dawn of World War II, and its subtle social commentary and penetrating humor serve nicely as thematic predecessors to both Altman and Truffaut’s bodies of work.

Truffaut, himself a notoriously passionate lover of film (note the scene in Day for Night where his character unloads a package of books on the films of Bresson, Hitchcock, Hawks, and Godard, or the dream sequence where a young boy, ostensibly the director as a child, snatches stills of Citizen Kane from a display in the lobby of a movie theater), was also a great admirer of Renoir. In many ways, Day for Night is the missing link between Nashville’s sardonic industry lampoon and The Rules of the Game’s more subtle human drama, both biting and pointed in its comedy and affectionately intimate with its characters.

But what makes Day for Night so compelling, beyond its metafictional narrative and absurd, sometimes profound character moments, is what it reveals about its director. It may be among Truffaut’s most personal films, not only because, through it, he shares the intricacies of his profession with his audience or because he stars as a character very close to his own real self, but because it earnestly depicts the source of his greatest passion. It’s truly a film for both film lovers and filmmakers, and Truffaut was among the greatest of both.

The special features included in Criterion’s new release of Day for Night, both expansive and well-rounded, add tremendous value to the home video edition of this already classic film. A bevy of interview clips and archival footage of the director and cast on set offer a deep and varied set of perspectives on the process of making the film, while newer pieces are impressively diverse in their scope of purpose.

Dreams of Cinema, a video essay by ::kogonada, tears into the thematic content of the film’s critical dream sequence and how it reflected Truffaut’s own passions and artistic vision. David Cairns’ booklet essay places the film in the context of Truffaut’s greater filmography and what the director might have been saying about his own body of work with the film.

In one of the most insightful extras, film scholar Dudley Andrew discusses the relationship between Truffaut and Godard following the release of Day for Night, which Godard notoriously and openly despised. In addition, Criterion’s set includes two unique and perceptive documentaries, the film’s original trailer, and a number of brief television interview clips from the time of release, ensuring that a more comprehensive or affectionate home video treatment of Day for Night is likely not possible.

RATING 9 / 10
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