Day for Night (Blu-ray Review)24 Aug, 2015 By: Mike Clark
$29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray
Stars Jacqueline Bisset, Francois Truffaut, Valentina Cortese, Jean-Pierre Aumont.
Filmed on sets left over from Bryan Forbes’ stillborn attempt to put The Madwoman of Chaillot on screen in 1969, Francois Truffaut’s more joyous than ever love song to filmmaking (but most of all to film crews) must be one of the movies’ relatively few successful examples of turning bad money into good. Just having Warner Bros. pick it up for distribution put it in a rarefied class for foreign-language releases of the day, and then it went on to make an Oscar splash in different years — first by winning 1973’s award for foreign film and then by picking up three more nominations in ’74. The last were in significant categories, too, though if you can figure out how Oscar’s ever-byzantine voting rules allowed this to happen, you’ll get a free graduation certificate from my mail order diploma house.
For such a happy movie despite its shades of melancholy and even one premature character death, this insiders’ view of moviemaking mechanics also launched a permanent rupture between onetime friends and professional/political colleagues Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, which, if you spend time with the bonus section, turns out to be a kind of subtheme of an irresistible Criterion release. With this crossover hit, Truffaut seemed to be taking a rose-colored view of cinema that Godard viewed as passé, hypocritical or even evidence of the form’s death, so you can imagine what the latter must have thought when Day for Night got so much academy fat-cat love (how many decades has it been for Godard, despite all his foresight and, OK, brilliance, to pick up more than a niche following?).
Critically and even commercially, Truffaut had had a rough 1960s and early ’70s after getting out of the career gate at a blistering pace, and the failure on both levels of 1972’s Two English Girls (still my favorite of his films after maybe The 400 Blows) must have been especially tough to swallow. But Day for Night found its director/co-writer apparently mandating himself to relax, even though what the movie portrays is a profession more hectic than any this side of an air-traffic controller. This would be, matter of fact, filmmaking itself, back in a time when all the available jobs were filled by even more “him-selves” than they are today. (This was and is a job where one has to set up an appointment to belch. You say you need a decision on this production matter or that, from costumes to insurance hassles: I can give you five seconds after you stand in line.)
In this case, all such activity is expended on a piece of fluff called Meet Pamela, a father-son-fiancée love triangle that looks as if it ultimately might end up on the bottom half of a double bill at some neighborhood theater that has just gotten its first beer license. I always figured that this was one of the points Truffaut was making: that far more than occasionally, crews put all this work into something that doesn’t end up mattering very much. But somewhere in this disc’s myriad extras, Truffaut is quoted as saying that he didn’t regard Pamela as something all that ephemeral but something more along the lines of 1964’s The Soft Skin (which, by the way, put the first chink in the director’s armor, though Criterion did its part for not unheard of pro-Skin revisionism by bringing it out earlier this year in an edition I have not yet seen).
Truffaut himself plays Day for Night’s director, and he does it so deftly that one has to think that it (with The Wild Child) turned on the light bulb in Steven Spielberg’s mind when it came time for him to make Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Supporting Truffaut here are a British-born babe who’d already had a better than adequate career in Hollywood carrying Dino’s love child in Airport (Jacqueline Bisset) plus two European performers who’d gotten fleeting work in the States: Jean-Pierre Aumont (extremely charming in a Criterion bonus section interview carried over from the original Warner DVD release) and still alive Valentina Cortese, who picked up a supporting Oscar nomination here. The scene that got it for her is the instant classic where her actress character keeps blowing her lines and opening the wrong set door as the camera is rolling. I recall that when Ingrid Bergman won that category’s Oscar for Murder on the Orient Express, she lauded Cortese in a classily gracious acceptance speech and that Cortese (in the audience) was very touched. There’s also Jean-Pierre Leaud (very hot at the time, with The Mother and the Whore and Last Tango in Paris) and, as the script girl, then newcomer Nathalie Baye, who also worked later with Spielberg (marvelous casting in Catch Me If You Can).
Baye’s luminous 2003 interview is a standout in the bonus section, as is another with Yale film scholar Dudley Andrew (the kind of teacher I’d have liked to have had). Andrew notes that one of the things that put off Godard here was the fact that Truffaut’s character never tries to sleep with his leading lady in the film when “everyone knew” (and, well, yes, this is probably true) that Truffaut in real life always made the attempt. I’m not sure if this is an implied Truffaut character flaw on Godard’s part, but I can tell you this, Jean-Lukey: if there was a straight guy at NYU film school when I was there who didn’t want to sleep with Jacqueline Bisset, his name doesn’t immediately come to mind. Of course, there’s enough hanky-panky amongst the Pamela crew to keep everyone preoccupied — just another day at work when work also involves fake snow, shooting scenes way out of continuity and sometimes working on sets so small that a camera move two inches over would reveal a sweaty technician. No other movie has dealt so well with the profession’s artifice, but there’s nothing superficial about what we see on the screen when it comes to explaining this one-of-a-kind way to make a living. Both the New York Film Critics Circle and National Society picked Day for Night as best of ’73 — and ’73 was the year of Mean Streets, American Graffiti, Amarcord and (though relatively few were looking beyond Pauline Kael) The Long Goodbye. Just for starters.