Jake, from Not Just Movies, and I were talking on the twitter about a Book Club for film blogging. For our first pick, we discussed Day for Night or La Nuit Americaine (1973), directed by Francois Truffaut. It’s about the production of Je Vous Presente Pamela, a family melodrama that takes place in Provence, but the hectic job of working on a movie set takes center stage.
A: Opening thought: I think Alphonse might have been inspiration for Max Fischer. He’s the spitting image of Schwartzman on a go-cart.
J: I’m so glad we’re starting on the Wes Anderson connection. I kept thinking of that American Express commercial Wes made throughout the film, and I saw a lot of Max in Alphonse too. And I laughed about as hard at the look Léaud contemptuously throws at the crew member who comes to get him precisely because it reminded me of Max. It’s a petulant, sheltered, almost stunted childishness, the inverse of the very real angst exhibited by Léaud in the Antoine Doinel character he developed with Truffaut over several films.
I also think the film’s color palette, although captured with more improvisational flair than Anderson’s immaculate compositions, was an influence. Those flat but vibrant pastels certainly recur in Anderson’s filmography.
A: Oh, most definitely. I didn’t make the connection between that commercial, but now that you mention it, it’s the exact same feel, down to choosing which gun to use.
I loved that they chose to set the movie in the Riviera, since you’ve got that warm color palette, but at the end you’ve got a small town coated in snow with palm trees sticking up behind the set. It matches the chaotic tone of working on set, where just about everything occurs.
J: Yeah, it’s so chaotic, in fact, that it’s hard to know where exactly to start when discussing the film’s overview of film production. Truffaut really stresses the surreality, even the solipsism, of filmmaking. He casts his little production area as a sort of self-contained world of artifice, where one can constantly see the falsity of it in long shot, only for it to feel so real up-close.
What’s interesting about this film as opposed to, say, 8 1/2 or The Player, is its resolute focus on the actual feeling of production. Those films about film approach the subject by way of the artistic process and workplace politics, respectively. Day for Night, on the other hand, is very much about the simple ordeal of coordinating and executing a film shoot, of finding practical solutions for everything from quick rewrites to unruly actors. For someone who helped put forward the auteur theory, Truffaut certainly shows just how much work, and by how many people, it takes to put even a modestly scaled film together.
A: He really emphasizes the nature of film as an artistic industry. He did something similar with The Last Metro, only that focused on theater in war time. But I like that there’s the apparent artificiality when all of the characters act so genuine around each other, whether they’re on set or behind scenes. Even viewing their flaws, they all seem very likable people with the energy to create a film.
J: That’s the curious dichotomy of the film. Every character is, when viewed through a normal prism, completely insane. They’re all narcissistic, stunted and divorced from reality. Nevertheless, they’re linked by this shared madness. I love how casually some of the crew respond to the actors’ histrionic promises to leave show business. They don’t brush off these threats with cynical awareness that the actors couldn’t hack it in the “real world” (though that’s probably true); they just know that this life means too much to the people for them to just quit it.
That’s why I’m especially fascinated by the partners some of these people have who come from outside the industry. Julie’s husband, Liliane and Lajoie’s wife are all vastly different characters, but they share the common trait of exposing, in their own ways, the lunacy of the binds that tie the cast and crew. But they also show how genuine and deep those connections are.
A: I think they’re all connected by this love of film too. All Alphonse wants to do is go to the movies and when they’re recording chatter their sound guy has to ask the crew not to talk about film. It’s that drive that gets the crew to handle all of these histrionics. Everyone works to their own goal.
The outside-spouses’ opinions seem just as off-kilter, even if they’re supposed to resemble the reality outside of production. There’s the production manager’s wife who won’t give him a bit of peace and then Liliane is willing to run off with a stunt guy she just met. It’s acknowledging a level of craziness in everyone.
J: I agree, though I think the madness of their own reactions stems at least partially from the effects of the industry. I think Truffaut is saying that the pull of the movies affects everyone. The production slowly absorbs civilians, from the cop who gave permission for a certain shoot to the restaurant patron invited by Severine to join the wrap party. Some people, like the wife or Liliane, just can’t handle the stress and surreality of this tight-knit world, but Truffaut’s view of the industry is never negative. After all, that industry is so attractive because it idealizes the world in which we live.
A: And film is never criticized for the flaws in the actors. The admiration for it is underlined when Ferrand has dreams of when he stole the lobby cards from Citizen Kane. That was easily one of my favorite scenes. It’s such a tender moment of loving film.
So even when it creates these crazy people, they’re likable by default, since they’re working to create more of that.
J: Agree completely. Truffaut always claimed that the cinema saved his life, which it did first as the kind of fan who would steal lobby cards out of love and later as a critic and director. I think he shows how that feeling extends to everyone who works in film. They have their squabbles, their breakdowns, their flights of preening diva behavior, but they always rally to get the work done because it is their lifeblood.
I think that plays to Truffaut’s unique approach to New Wave postmodernism. All of the Cahiers gang loved movies, but they responded in different ways with their filmmaking. Godard focused on the intellectual and contextual possibilities of cinema. Rivette went the opposite way, creating sealed-off worlds to explore the structure of film qua film. Chabrol fed his quotation into more old-school, crowd-pleasing fare. But all of Truffaut’s references are emotional, celebrating film as something that links us all. Day for Night embodies that better than perhaps any of his other works.
A: That’s another connection between Wes Anderson and the Cahiers I’d say: there’s this completely apparent love for film in their own works, even if they use it differently. Truffaut is probably the most sentimental of the group, but I appreciate that. It adds such affection to the production.
I’m ashamedly not that familiar with the French New Wave auteurs, but I will say that I prefer Truffaut’s humanist approach to Godard’s political one. I feel like that’s the major stand off in French film: make art that’s personal, or make art that’s challenging in both subject matter and form.
J: Absolutely, and I think Truffaut and Godard embodied that schism better than anyone, their friendship eventually growing incredibly frosty when Godard’s own sentimentality turned to full-on cerebral filmmaking.
I don’t think Truffaut was apolitical (heck, just watch The 400 Blows), but he still saw cinema as his guiding light. Even when Day for Night is at its most uncomfortable, it’s never anything less than elated to be making a movie. So many of his peers were breaking down every component of filmmaking and how the pieces fit together. Truffaut just loved the feeling it gave him.
A: And that is why I will always be a Truffaut Girl: his characters are zany and I love his view of cinema.
J: It’s been quite a while since I’ve watched a Truffaut film—and in the interim, I’ve become much more acquainted with Godard—and I’d forgotten just how pleasant he could be at his best. I do think he could sometimes be too precious by half, but Day for Night displays the best of Truffaut. I’d actually be hard-pressed picking it or The 400 Blows as my favorite of his. It’s chaotic and cheeky but sweet and joyful, and perhaps the least hung-up film about film ever made.
I think I’m all out of big points to say, but there are a few odd observations that I loved and wanted to mention:
-A drunken Severine getting so worked up during a shoot that she asks to just say numbers on-set and overdub the proper lines later like she did with Fellini.
-The you-go-girl response to Liliane running off with the stuntman: “I’d drop a guy for a film. I’d never drop a film for a guy!”
-How Julie’s husband subverts expectations. He’s the character you instantly distrust, the doctor now seeing his patient, having left his family to be with a woman who appears to be decades younger. But he’s so considerate and wise and genuine that I think he provides as much a rock for some of the other actors as he does Julie.
-That scene where they have to get the cat to drink from a saucer. I don’t think I stopped laughing the entire time, from the look of barely checked fury on the part of the handler who kept tossing the poor, uncooperative stray at the cream to the exasperated cry, “Listen, it’s very simple. We’ll stop and begin shooting again when you find me a cat who knows how to act!”
A: I like all of those scenes too. And it’s fun how Dr. Nelson winds up not playing to type, but just genuinely loves Julie.
Some of my favorites include:
- Julie and Alexandre bonding over an old story about Hollywood.
- The go cart scene! (I can’t resist not bringing it up again).
-There’s this simple gesture when they’re going over the footage of the stuntman and the car, when they pause for the frame when he’s jumping out. It’s a simple square off, then cutting motion with the fingers and it works so well with that particular montage.
-I also love that scene at the end when they shoot the death scene in the snow. It’s so melodramatic and Hollywood, but it’s broken down in the same way the crowd scene was at the beginning. It becomes dramatic for the moment, but also for the careful choreography that goes into it.