Farce or Fantasy? Filmmaking Through the Lens of ‘Day for Night’

Jean-Luc Godard’s accusation against Francois Truffaut for presenting the process of filmmaking as something fraudulently sentimental is unjustified. The words spat by Godard to disparage Truffaut and his vision is more or less a statement on the quality of Day for Night, but a blunt statement that services as proof that la nouvelle vague, French New Wave is a more diverse school of thought than often given credit. It is important to recognize that French New Wave cinema was not an organized effort, while the directors of the French New Wave had relationships with one another and shared key points of ideology there was never their version of the Danish Dogme 95 which put in writing what rules where to be followed to be classified under their distinct movement. French New Wave is rather to be defined as a reaction to film market that occurred during the era. With the rise of film criticism and arthouse cinema, filmmakers such as Godard and Truffaut found inspiration in non-conformity to the mainstream movies and indulged in experimentation. French New Wave was more linked by the spirit and kinship by the French directors who were rewarded for their daring efforts to expand the landscape of film as a medium. This leads us to examine how the differences in how Godard and Truffaut led to their heated exchange.

One aspect that might have led Godard to view Day for Night with such disdain is Truffaut’s lack of portrayal of the importance of the director. Jean Luc Godard is a quintessential example of Andre Bazin’s auteur director, meaning that the director serves as the ultimate authoritarian on the film’s outcome. Godard beliefs seem to reflect that he understands that film is a cold and calculated business and as he takes the directors chair he is the CEO, the one who has to make the tough decisions and steer the project so that it fulfills a place in the market and earns its wealth. In Truffaut’s reflective role as Ferrand the director of Je Vous Présente Paméla he comes across not as the ultimate tour de force of the film but as another crew member doing their duty. Ferrand is well respected on his set and seems more than capable to handle the dilemmas encountered, but at the same time is portrayed as passive and at the mercy of his fellow cast in crew. With each turmoil in the production whether it be unrecoverable film, actress meltdowns, or cast and crew missing from set it further pushes the idea that each member is serving a vital role to the film’s completion. Ferrand can not will the film into completion, but through trust in his cast in crew does everything eventually work itself out. There’s a strange backhandedness to the sentimentality of the film, that through each trifle do we further how each member of the Je Vous Présente Paméla is a necessity to the film, yet when Alexandre dies he’s swiftly replaced and there is not much bitterness to it.

Everyone’s Replaceable?

Image result for truffaut day for night

 

The replacement of Alexandre is the necessary evil in “the show must go on” mentality, but it’s an odd statement to make especially after refusing to rehire Stacey’s role and going to extra mile to obscure her pregnancy. The difficult question that Day for Night proposes is where does affection belong in the process of filmmaking and in film. It is an idea that is played tongue-in-cheek throughout the film with elements paradoxical to one another to assert that the film does not have the answer contained within it. Ferrand is seen dreaming of his childhood and stealing stills of Citizen Kane, a delinquent act driven by his youthful admiration for great filmmaking. Yet, despite Ferrand’s muse, Je Vous Présente Paméla is far from a passion project, working as a director for hire it is assumed Ferrand lacks the true passion for the actual film he is making. Another example is the film’s opening in which the composer instructs for there to be “no sentimentality, just play the notes” but is soon followed by a sentimental gesture of dedicating the film to Lillian and Dorothy Gish. A handwritten message by Truffaut personalizes it and the dedications inclusion is to extend that Day for Night is a well-crafted love-letter to the performers in front of the camera and behind the scenes and all the wonderful aspects that make movies great.

The conceit of the film is that Je Vous Présente Paméla is not a film that is a spectacular triumph to the art and process of filmmaking, but Day for Night is. Proving the point that even in the traditional form that the New Wave deconstructed, even on an impassioned project from the director there is still something magical about making a film. David Cairns in his analysis for The Criterion Collection takes notice of how the Day for Night scoring operates in the film, especially the opening. In watching the sound waves bounce around, Cairns asserts that the score is “robbed” of its normal functionality of being non-diegetic that the typical “omniscient observer” is not providing an indirect commentary on the emotional status of the film but is a part of establishing that appeal. Throughout the film the score is whimsical as it fills the gaps between the drama and the frantic pursuit of completing the day’s work but accompanied with the crane shots giving in overview of the vast sets creates a feeling of the bigger picture.

What is Magic?

Alphonse throughout the film tries to find the answer to the question on his mind, “Are women magical?” Alphonse’s immature pursuit for a magical romantic connection says a lot on the message portrayed in Day for Night, that whether it is romantic pursuits, or filmmaking, or life in general what deserves to be deemed “magical”? Someone as grounded as Goddard might find that Day for Night is superficial exaggeration of some illusion that feeds into people’s fantasies that life is grander than it is. However, magic might be the perfect word to describe Truffaut’s intentions. By turning the camera on the world that takes place behind the focal lens of a camera, Truffaut is a magician revealing the tricks that go into making a film. However, as Hoyle put it in his review,

“Night-time scenes are shot in broad daylight; men double for women, and so on. But while there is something very artificial about making day appear as night, there is also something very magical about it, and it is to the everlasting credit of Truffaut that his film focuses on the magic of cinema, not the deceit”

Day for Night creates a beautiful picture that filmmaking is an escapism for the cast and crew as much as the fantasy their movies portray. The family aspect of coming together to make a film feels authentic throughout the journey of production. The stresses of completing their work seems miniscule in comparison to the hardships and tragedies that surround their lives prior to and after leaving the set. While there are a couple threats of leaving acting and never pursue another film it is assumed that its an empty threat as  the beckoning for the coping mechanism that is the diligent work of film production is something that is needed for the cast and crew of Day for Night. Film is a fantasy and a grand illusion, Day For Night never denies that, but the fact that people come together, personal drama aside and create an ideal version of the world for others to enjoy well there is something magical in that.

Spotlight: Learning to Love it

I find it an interesting point to bring up that Truffaut was considered a tough critic, especially to the point where he was not invited to the Cannes Film Festival. In Day for Night, it seems like an important detail that the film being made, Je Vous Présente Paméla is no cinematic masterpiece and is actually far from it. From the snippets shown, the film is fashioned as a soap-operatic melodrama evident through staged set designs, overly dramatic lighting, and the theatrical line delivery and gestures during the actor’s performances. The candle lighting and how awkwardly it ends up being held up is the best example of this. Besides its functionality that Day for Night is Multi-layered story and it is helping distinguish between when a character is in character, but it tells a lot about Truffaut’s message with Day for Night. It’s unclear of whether Truffaut’s high standards were always out of wanting more out of the films he viewed and being disappointed that he felt the films never captured the appreciation for the medium that he felt. Or possibly that Truffaut entered Day for Night with a more mature outlook, that after directing his own films he came to appreciate the filmmaking process in general. That there is something still left to be appreciated in some aspect of production, or some praise in the kinship and completion of the daunting task that is completing a film.

The title Day for Night is essentially calling to the elements that are not what they seem. Like how you initially perceived Séverine to be a seasoned veteran to find out she’s extremely distraught and the opposite could be said about Julie. While it is foreshadowed that Julie is prone to have a nervous breakdown, hinted by the producer’s trying to get insurance in case they can not complete the film with her. Yet, she comes across as one of the most compassionate and level-headed people on the set. Even when she does have her outbreak her grief seems fair, and her actions seem justified. Day for Night does not just pertain to the characters but the façade of everything about the filmmaking process. It is interesting how open to interpretation as some of the farcical versus genuine elements are. The concept of the film family that is created on set seems to be one of the genuine “magical” elements of the set as those this temporary bond is the only place where people know who you are and not what your reputation to the outside world is. There are somethings that seem to contradict the sentimentality of the film family, the fact that working seems to allow you to repress your true hurting self and that when Alexandre dies there is little morning shown in between the reshoots. However, I do believe that Day for Night is referring not only that things are not what they seem but as creating an illusion to create a grand presentation of reality. The fact that Julie can give a polite farewell to Alphonse and the crew member that only has positive things to say about the production shows that while the magic in film comes from creating an artificial narrative, there is a factor of fantasy involved in it.


 

Images are from the 1973 film Day For Night [credit: Les Films du Carrosse/ Criterion Collection]

Day for Night: Are Movies Magic?” by David Cairns

Brian Hoyle Sense of Cinema Day for Night Review

A video by the Criterion Collection on the feud between Godard and Truffaut.

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