I tend to be skeptical of movies about movies, because the film industry has a tendency to be a particularly poor judge of itself. There's almost always something that feels off: the industry seems too sanitized, the “biting satire” feels too toothless, the winking in-jokes feel too self-indulgent or the general importance of movies gets overstated to an absurd degree (that last weakness tends to inspire Oscar nominations). Francois Truffaut's Day for Night is one of the better ones, managing to avoid most of the usual failings of this sort of thing and turning in a fun, frisky comedy with just the right amount of deeply personal sentiment.
Truffaut himself plays Ferrand, the perpetually harried director of a overwrought melodrama called Meet Pamela. The production has been a chaotic one thus far, as a multitude of minor inconveniences and shooting difficulties have made things challenging for all involved. The movie's biggest star is a British actress named Julie Baker (Jacqueline Bisset, The Deep), though she hasn't arrived yet due to the fact that she's wrapping up another movie in Hollywood. The film's other key players are the esteemed veteran actor Alexandre (Jean-Pierre Aumont, Castle Keep), the hot-tempered young screen idol Alphonse (Jean-Pierre Leaud, The 400 Blows) and the legendary diva Severine (Valentina Cortese, The Barefoot Contessa).
The spirit of Day for Night is best exemplified by an early scene in which Ferrand addresses the cast and crew after doing a complicated tracking shot. He points out just one little thing that felt off, and somebody who came in two seconds late, and one thing that wasn't in the right place, and another thing, and another thing and another thing until you realize that – despite his calm, collected tone – he's more or less unhappy with the whole entire thing. As presented by Truffaut, filmmaking is a series of continual disappointments occasionally interrupted by moments of perfection that make the whole endeavor worthwhile (the most memorable example being a scene in which a cat that refuses to take direction is replaced by a cat who turns out to be a one-take wonder).
That feels a lot closer to the truth than the “everything is magic” notion a lot of movies peddle, and that considerably more romantic notion is one Truffaut addresses. On multiple occasions, young Alphonse (who stumbles into bed with more than one of his attractive female collaborators) asks a naive and earnest question: “Are women magic?” He gets several answers, the most persuasive of which is provided by Julie: “Of course they're not magic. Or men are, too. Everyone's magic, and no one is.” To put it another way: no one is actually magical, but sometimes they can seem that way. There's a subtle but direct comparison drawn between the magic moments that make us fall in love with other people, and the magic moments that make us fall in love with movies (best exemplified by a lovely flashback sequence in which Ferrand dreams of stealing Citizen Kane promotional photos as a child).
In addition to serving as a tribute to Truffaut's profession of choice, Day for Night is an enjoyably energetic romantic farce of sorts, occasionally resembling the work of Max Ophuls (La Ronde in particular) in the way it tosses the cast and crew members into a game of sexual musical chairs. It seems that everyone sleeps with everyone at some point, save for Ferrand, who is too busy thinking about his movie to bother with sex (it should be noted that this is the key difference between Ferrand and Truffaut, who consistently made time to sleep with his leading ladies). In a scene of tragicomic irony, one adulterous woman expresses dismay with the fact that she has cheated on her husband after he so admirably left his first wife for her.
The film benefits from a consistently strong ensemble (in addition to the aforementioned stars, Nathalie Baye does particularly wonderful work as the film's bespectacled, eternally devoted script girl), and Georges Delerue's alternately frothy and regal score sets just the right tone. The film was something of a comeback for Truffaut; a critically-adored crowd-pleaser that came in the wake of several frustrating misfires. Truffaut's peer Jean-Luc Godard accused his fellow director of pandering, but the film itself doesn't feel calculated. It's a filmmaker's earnest attempt to express why he loves doing what he does, and while it never attains the extraordinary power of Truffaut's very best films, it's a thoroughly charming piece of work.
Day for Night
Rating: ★★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 115 minutes
Release Year: 1973