“In eighty movies I’ve died twenty-four times – electrocuted twice, hanged twice. I’ve been knifed, committed suicide, died in accidents, but never a natural death. Anyway, I don’t think death is natural.”
‘Day for Night’, directed by François Truffaut in 1973, is a French comedy drama about the lives of the cast and crew during a film shoot. Truffaut himself plays the fictional director Ferrand, who finds himself improvising as his cast, including Jean-Pierre Léaud (a Truffaut regular who played Antoine Doinel in ‘The 400 Blows) and Jacqueline Bisset engage in affairs and succumb to their star-like eccentricities and vanities. The closest relative to this film is Federico Fellini’s ‘8 ½’ made ten years previously, but whilst Fellini’s movie was gloriously stylised and fantastical, Truffaut’s is lined with reality and with references to the director’s own inspirations including Luis Buñuel, Carl Theodor Dreyer, Ingmar Bergman, Alfred Hitchcock, Jean-Luc Godard, Ernst Lubitsch, Roberto Rossellini and Robert Bresson. Throughout the film, the illusions that directors employ are highlighted: the stunts, makeup, camera trickery, ways the director coaxes the performances he or she needs from intransigent actors. Alongside this is asked a recurring question about the value of film versus the lives of the filmmakers. The final scene, both in Truffaut’s film and in Ferrand’s film, combines these themes together. An actor has died, and the director finds ways to complete his movie and thus satisfying the restrictions of the British insurance company representative (played in an understated cameo by novelist Graham Greene). The solution is to work around the death in such a way that the actor continues to live on screen after he has died off-screen – moviemaking as a resurrection. ‘Day for Night’ is a work of genius and of an unparalleled cine-literate. It’s my favourite Truffaut movie so far after seeing ‘The 400 Blows’ and ‘Jules and Jim’. It lacks the personal touch of the former and the rich historicism of the latter, but the way Truffaut drills into the heart of his own profession and exposes some of his own hypocrisies, makes ‘Day for Night’ a really important and thought-provoking work. And, like ‘8 ½’ before it, it’s really funny.
Would I recommend it? Yes. The obvious double bill is with ‘8 ½’ or, at a push, ‘All That Jazz’. Maybe an epic triple bill of movie-making vanity, ego and madness.