Director: François Truffaut
Screenplay: François Truffaut, Jean-Louis Richard, Suzanne Schiffman
Starring: Jacqueline Bisset, Jean-Pierre Léaud, François Truffaut, Jean-Pierre Aumont, Valentina Cortese
Country: France, Italy
Running Time: 115 min
BBFC Certificate: 15
Films about filmmaking always tend to be popular with critics and I must say I’ve always been a fan of them myself. From the razor sharp satire of The Player, to the noirish brilliance of Sunset Boulevard, to over the top daft takes on the genre like Bowfinger, there’s a lot to enjoy from the film industry poking fun at or shining a mirror on themselves. French new wave legend François Truffaut turned his hand at making a film about making a film back in 1973, Day for Night. It was hugely popular at the time, winning numerous awards, including the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film and The Criterion Collection have chosen it as their latest release on Blu-Ray in the UK. I haven’t seen it since I was a teenager, but I had fond memories of it, so was keen on giving it a rewatch.
Day for Night charts the production of ‘Meet Pamela’, a soapy-looking drama about a young woman who’s torn between her fiancée and his father. Truffaut plays the on-screen director who tries to keep the machine rolling during a shoot fraught with problems. The cast are divas, the crew are getting off with each other left-right and centre and little goes to plan. Mid-production things start to level off, but several disasters towards the end lead to some wild compromises.
It perfectly captures the madness of making a film – the problems; major and minor, the fakery and the beauty. Despite so much going wrong during the fictional production, it still made me desperate to get out on set, being a filmmaker myself. This is a testament to the great balancing act Truffaut pulls off between poking fun at the industry’s inherent absurdity and writing it a love letter at the same time. A closing bit of dialogue perfectly sums it up, when a reporter asks the prop-man (the only person willing to talk to the press) if the shoot was difficult, and he answers “no, it went fine and we hope audiences enjoy watching it”, despite the multitude of catastrophes they went through.
The film is shot with lots of movement and near constant dialogue, emphasising the frantic atmosphere of a film set. It also highlights the constant decision-making being made by the director and the compromises he must accept. The roles of the rest of the crew are certainly not dismissed though as everyone has their part to play in front of and behind the camera; not only their prescribed roles, but you see some act as councillors and babysitters for the emotionally fragile cast as well as animal wranglers and last minute walk-on actors.
It’s all incredibly funny too, with most of the humour coming from the madness of the shoot and the ridiculous nature of film fakery. A big example of the latter would be the scaffolding and single wall with a window put up to make it look like the camera is shooting from one neighbouring house to another. I liked some of the smaller moments too, like a hand popping down a chimney with a sponge to put out a fake fire in the fireplace.
The antics of the characters provide the bulk of the story and more of the jokes. The lead actors in ‘Meet Pamela’ all have their issues; from the alcoholic ageing actress Séverine (Valentina Cortese), to her on-screen husband (Jean-Pierre Aumont) who’s harbouring a surprising secret, to the horny, painfully insecure young lead actor (Jean-Pierre Léaud). The most sane member of the fictional cast is probably Julie Baker (Jacqueline Bisset), a British star who suffered a nervous breakdown a year ago. Although some of the bed-hopping involved in the plot felt a bit cliché, it didn’t feel entirely unbelievable and the interplay between the characters is so strong in itself, along with the fun had in watching the film being made, the story feels secondary.
Day for Night is a pitch perfect comedy about filmmaking and easily one of the best. Hugely enjoyable and pin-sharp, it’s an affectionate love-letter to making films, even if it makes the process out to be ludicrous and justifiably so.
Day for Night is out now on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by The Criterion Collection. The picture and sound quality is great, as is to be expected from Criterion, presenting the film in its original aspect ratio and providing a print which is as clean, sharp and natural looking.
You get plenty of special features too. Here’s the list:
– Visual essay by filmmaker :: kogonada
– Interviews with cinematographer Pierre-William Glenn and assistant editor Martine Barraqué
– Interview with film scholar Dudley Andrew
– Documentary on the film from 2003, featuring film scholar Annette Insdorf
– Archival interviews with director François Truffaut, editor Yann Dedet, and actors Jean-Pierre Aumont, Nathalie Baye, Jacqueline Bisset, Dani, and Bernard Menez
– Archival television footage about the film, including footage of Truffaut on the set
– New English subtitle translation
– PLUS: An essay by critic David Cairns
It’s a vast amount of material to get through and covers everything you’d want to know about the film, providing both on-set anecdotes and analysis. I particularly enjoyed one of the pieces looking at the notorious letters sent between Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, who hated Day For Night, telling Truffaut as much in his first letter.