Day for Night (La Nuit Américaine, 1973) – Review by Pauline Kael

Day for Night has the Truffaut proportion and grace, and it can please those who have grown up with Truffaut’s films — especially those for whom Jean-Pierre Leaud as Antoine Doinel has become part of their own autobiographies, with Antoine’s compromises and modest successes paralleling their own.

by Pauline Kael

François Truffaut has immense quantities of goodwill built up with his audience — more than any other director. That goodwill probably didn’t extend to Such a Gorgeous Kid Like Me, because it was shrill, and dumb even when it was funny. But it can extend to his new film, Day for Night, which is a return to form, though it’s a return only to form. It has the Truffaut proportion and grace, and it can please those who have grown up with Truffaut’s films — especially those for whom Jean-Pierre Leaud as Antoine Doinel has become part of their own autobiographies, with Antoine’s compromises and modest successes paralleling their own. The gentle tone is similar to that of the later Doinel films, and the casting of Leaud as a film-nut actor and everybody’s pet is incestuously close. Day for Night has none of the strange, touching uncertainty and downright fumbling of Two English Girls; everything in it appears to be what Truffaut wanted. It has a pretty touch. But when it was over, I found myself thinking, Can this be all there is to it? The picture has no center and not much spirit. It’s a backstage story about the making of an American-financed movie, “Meet Pamela,” set on the Riviera, in which Jacqueline Bisset, married to Jean-Pierre Leaud, falls in love with his father, Jean-Pierre Aumont. Truffaut brings it all off, but he sings small. He appears to have nothing more on his mind than does Ferrand, the efficient, colorless director of “Meet Pamela,” whom he himself plays.

Is it enough just to want to make movies, and to be in love with the process? For those who can say yes, Day for Night may be a full enough experience. Truffaut dedicates the film to Lillian and Dorothy Gish, shown in a still from Griffith’s An Unseen Enemy, of 1912. (The Gish girls, the first of the great sister acts in films, suggest the sisters Frangoise Dorleac and Catherine Deneuve, who alternately starred in Truffaut’s movies.) He opens the film with a voice declaiming to music (in the style of Cocteau, whose name in a tapestry he lingers on later), and Ferrand has a nightmare in which he’s a child stealing stills from Citizen Kane. The film is full of homage to movie immortals. How, then, can this conventional salute to conventional filmmaking satisfy Truffaut? Does it? A picture that lacks freshness, and with wonderful-spoiled-children characters who are no more than anecdotal? Among the actors, Valen­tina Cortese is the liveliest, in her juicy, if familiar, theatrical turn as a drunken has-been star, and Leaud’s elfin piques are amusing enough, but the large cast is very ordinary, with Jacqueline Bisset, as usual, looking warm and beautiful and acting monotonously. Day for Night is tender but too fan-magazinish in approach, too tenderly shallow for its own good. Yet at some level it may truly satisfy Truffaut. He has turned out a great many movies in a very few years — thirteen features since 1959. It’s possible that his world has closed in, that it has become the world of filmmaking.

Day for Night is very childlike — filled with a deeply innocent love of the magic of moviemaking. I think this film helps to explain Truffaut: his (excessive, to me) admiration of Hitchcock (the master of a piddling domain, a petit maitre if ever there was one), and the way Truffaut can go from the high intelligence of one film to the diminutive virtues or outright silliness of another. In his version of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 Truffaut made the point that booklovers don’t love only great books; he treated books as magical objects, valuable in themselves, apart from their quality, and I think he extends this feeling to movies, and attaches a special feeling even to the making of a mediocrity like “Meet Pamela.” In Day for Night, his tribute to the old way of making movies, he’s saying that he doesn’t reject the absurdities that once gave him pleasure — that they still do. I admit to having enjoyed more than my portion of drivel, but I don’t share Truffaut’s fond regard for the kind of moviemaking that “Meet Pamela” represents. I ask for the extraordinary from films, while Truffaut, who finds moviemaking itself extraordinary, is often content to make films for everyday.

Maybe those of us who want the extraordinary are romantics, too, but of a different sort. I think of filmmaking in terms of the tragically wasted master Abel Gance’s remark “I see my life as an office of lost dreams.” I think of all the projects abandoned for want of money, and of what might have been in place of all the “Meet Pamela”s, and I can’t work up much feeling for Day for Night, because although it probably doesn’t have the rigid approach to following a script that Fer- rand’s movie has, it doesn’t really strike me as so very different. I miss the emotion that goes into the films I care about. When Ferrand says that the way he’s been working is finished, that films will be shot in the streets and “there will be no more movies like ‘Meet Pamela,’ ” I wish that were a promise. Or a pledge to be signed, first by men like Her­bert Ross, and maybe, eventually, by François Truffaut. Halfway through the shooting of “Meet Pamela,” Ferrand says, “It’s going well. Cinema is king.” At that point, I think, Truffaut is speaking for himself, and I think he’s wrong: there’s nothing royal in empty movie­making. Truffaut’s soft spot for the sort of movies that formed him and his unwillingness to give them up are part of what makes his work so lovable, but this affection has a negative aspect, too. Day for Night is a movie for the movie-struck, the essentially naive — those who would rather see a movie, any movie (a bad one, a stupid one, or an evanescent, sweet-but-dry little wafer of a movie, like this one), than do anything else. It’s for those (one meets them on campuses) who can say, “I love all movies.” It’s not for someone like me, who can walk out on A Touch of Class without a twinge. What encourages one about Truffaut is that at a deeper level he, too, may be dissatisfied with what he’s been doing, or why would he have decided to take the next two years off to read and to write? I hope this doesn’t mean he’s going to read only about movies.

Footnote to movie history: The English insurance man who turns up in a scene near the end of Day for Night looks like Graham Greene, but since the role isn’t listed in the credits I wasn’t sure until I had checked with Truffaut. He said that it was indeed Greene but that he himself hadn’t known it until after the scene was shot. He explained that he had rejected the first man offered to him for the role, because the man looked too poetic, and when Greene (who lives in Antibes, near where the movie was made) was brought to him at a party, he thought he looked fine for a businessman — “like a Ray Milland or James Stewart.” Greene suffered from stagefright, Truffaut says, and he adds that after the shooting, at dinner with the cast, Greene and he argued about Hitchcock.

The New Yorker, October 15, 1973


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