Director: Francois Truffaut
Nice, the 1970s. A street scene. A man slaps his father. The director calls ‘cut’. A series of vignettes about the filming of ‘Meet Pamela’, a melodrama about a young man who brings his new bride home to visit his parents, then the bride falls in love with her father in law. The first scene is repeatedly shot. Cars are asked to be repainted. Ferrand, the director, is asked a series of trivial questions by his crew, which he becomes bored of answering. He attempts to watch the first day’s rushes, yet a power failure at the lab has resulted in them being destroyed. The opening scene needs to be re-shot with 150 extras.
Séverine, an aging actress, now insecure and dependent on alcohol repeatedly fluffs her lines during a key scene. The film’s insurers are nervous because Julie Baker, the British leading lady, is recovering from a nervous breakdown and there will be no film without her. Another key actress is discovered to be pregnant and her cast-iron contract prevents her being fired. Julie finally arrives to a flurry of press interest about her recent marriage to her doctor, a much older man. Leading man, Alphonse, is having an affair with a script girl that makes him behave erratically. Pamela’s death is shot with an English stuntman, with whom the script girl runs off to London. Alphonse threatens to leave the set but is persuaded to stay by Julie, who sleeps with him. Alexandre, who plays Alphonse’s father, dies in a car accident, which means his role is scaled down. Eventually, the shoot is completed.
“What is a film director?”
“Someone who is asked questions all the time and about everything. He even knows some of the answers”
After the staggering success of ‘Les Quatre Cents Coups’ and ‘Jules et Jim’, Truffaut entered a creatively lean period, preoccupied by the Antoine Doinel cycle and numerous underwhelming thrillers inspired both by Hitchcock and film noir (‘The Mississippi Mermaid’, ‘The Bride Wore Black’). ‘Day for Night’ was a temporary renaissance for the director whose career seems to have unfairly overshadowed some of his less well-respected peers, possibly because his brand of cinema is more accessible than the likes of Malle and Resnais, though his first few films aside, it’s certainly no more original. For the esteemed critic and cinephile, what else could inspire Truffaut more than cinema itself, which had rescued the director from a life of juvenile delinquency? When Ferrand, not just Truffaut’s alter-ego but also performed by him, has dreams about breaking into a cinema as a child to steal promotional photographs of ‘Citizen Kane’, we know this was a genuine incident from his past. This single scene from Truffaut’s entire body of work summarises not only his love of cinema, but the power of cinema.
What is ‘Day for Night’ if not a love-letter to cinema? Not necessarily the cinema of the quality of Truffaut’s inspirations, which are unsubtly revealed when Ferrand browses through books on Bunuel, Dreyer, Hitchcock, Rossellini et al, but cinema in its entirety, in all guises. There’s no pretence that ‘Meet Pamela’ is even an especially impressive film. We’re to believe that it’s a trite and clichéd melodrama, but it’s the enthusiasm of the director and crew that we’re supposed to admire. As the film’s coda asks, “we hope everyone enjoys watching the film as we did making it”. ‘Meet Pamela’ represents cinema of a bygone era that is rapidly dying out because of Truffaut himself and his contemporaries.
The nostalgic voiceover continues that films are now shot in the streets without scenarios. There are to be no more films like ‘Meet Pamela’, studio-based with elaborate sets, employing all sorts of cinematic techniques, usually unknown to the audience, but are laid bare by Truffaut, not to expose the blatant artificiality of cinema but to demonstrate the great complexity of film-making. The film’s title refers to the process by which scenes shot during day are made to appear as if occurring at night. Other tricks of the trade that become apparent are electric candles, soap suds representing snow and artificial rain.
We watch films that are decades old and can spot errors a mile off; notably during any driving scenes, but what we don’t appreciate is the detail that went into attempting to replicate such scenes. Technology is all too readily available to make films appear more realistic, but films like ‘Meet Pamela’ are examples of how film-makers had to get around such technical issues. Even though Truffaut himself would have dismissed a film such as this (which would have been ironic given his own lapses into melodrama and sentimentality), there’s no doubt he displays a real fondness for those involved in the film-making business, those who love cinema, even if their own talents don’t match up to what they’d wish to achieve.
Traditionally, films about the film industry (usually Hollywood) are caustic affairs, revealing the cynicism, desperation and back-biting that exists beneath the glossy surface. Although there’s a nod to one of the greatest of these examples, ‘Sunset Boulevard’, with the alcoholic Séverine, whose career has been in decline for many years and despairs at how film-making has changed, ‘Day For Night’ is mostly a witty and touching depiction of life and relationships on a film set; never over-romantic, just honest. There are pretty arguments and tensions and brief relationships amongst the crew – both of which are the natural result of spending a length of time together in close quarters. Each of the leads have their personal problems that jeopardises the prospect of ‘Meet Pamela’ being completed, whilst Ferrand is drive to despair and distraction in his attempt to get the film finished. The drama that occurs off-set is every bit as melodramatic as the drama that’s supposed to be occurring within the film, if not more so. Although Truffaut’s comic touch was prone to being maudlin at times, here he gets the tone right. ‘Day for Night’ is one of the finest films about the film-making process and almost certainly Truffaut’s finest since ‘Jules et Jim’.