Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Film #71: La nui americaine (1973)

Title for us English-speaking types: Day for Night

Director: Francois Truffaut

Initial Release Country: France

Times Previously Seen: none

Teaser Summary (No spoilers)

A director deals with the endless technical and emotional chaos on the set of his current picture. 

Extended Summary (A more detailed plot synopsis, including spoilers. Fair warning.) 

France, 1973. Noted film director Ferraud (Francois Truffaut) is trying to get his current project up and running smoothly. Well, as smoothly as possible for a film. The financial backing is imposing stifling deadlines, the script is in constant flux, and the cast and crew have brought all of their emotional baggage with them. The film the Ferraud is attempting to make, May I Introduce Pamela, involves a young man bringing his new bride home to meet his parents, only to have her and his father fall in love and leave the rest of the family.

As emotional as this fictional tale might be, it pales in comparison to more immediate concerns of the cast and crew trying to bring the story to life. Ferraud must deal with almost no end of troubles. Each member of the cast either has gone through, is going through, or is trying to recover from some sort of depression or mental fatigue. The lead actress, Julie (Jacqueline Bisset) is returning from a hiatus to recover her mental health. The young actor Alexandre is an emotional juvenile whose neediness and jealousy knows almost no bounds. The elder supporting actress, Severine (Valentina Cortese), is in the full grip of alcoholism and struggles to so much as remember her lines. Add into this the little quirks and difficulties of the crew, from the script co-writer right down to the lowliest prop man, and Ferraud has his hands both full and tied.

It takes an army. Virtually everyone in this shot either loves, hates, has slept with, and/or will sleep with someone else in this shot. Maybe multiple someones. 

The greatest tests come near the end of filming. First, Alexandre’s girlfriend, the older and more worldly Liliane, leaves him for a British stuntman. This leads to Alexandre sleeping with his co-star Julie, much to the chagrin of Julie’s real husband. Just as all of this gets sorted out, one of the other key actors, Alphonse, dies in a car accident. Despite the insanity and tragedy, Ferraud manages to see the film through to its end. As shooting wraps up, the cast and crew part ways, though many of them clearly expect to see each other on projects. As strange and chaotic as it seems to most, this is the life they choose.

Take 1: My Gut Reaction (Done after this first viewing, before any further research.) 

Day for Night is an enjoyable, extremely well-constructed film that I probably don’t need to watch again. In a style similar to some of Robert Altman’s more renowned movies (M.A.S.H., Nashville, and especially The Player), Francois Truffaut decides to give us a panoramic view of the insanity surrounding a film set. I suppose some people see the subject matter as being self-important and self-aggrandizing, but Day for Night certainly doesn’t come off that way. The interactions between the characters is far often far too playful to be mistaken for pretension on Truffaut's part.

Director Ferraud instructing Julie on exactly how to hold her hands. Day for Night is full of such minutiae of film-making. It's actually fascinating. 

There is no way that I can avoid comparing this movie to its chief forebear: Federico Fellini’s 8 ½ . If looking at a brief treatment, it may seem as if Truffaut pirated Fellini. Both films are about making a film, and both convey the maelstrom surrounding the endeavor. Fellini, though, focused much more on the fantastic inner mental workings of the director-as-artist. Truffaut’s Day for Night takes in the entire scope of the project, not giving too much time to any one person, only delving slightly into a few characters’ minds. The only other clear similarity is that both films expertly achieve what they wish.

As mentioned, there are some graver moments and themes in the movie, such as Severine’s waning ability and waxing alcoholism. But this is tempered by her generally amiable demeanor. There are also Julie’s recovery from depression and her affair with Alexandre, as well as Alphonse’s sudden and tragic death. These, as upsetting as they may be, are quickly resolved and the film, just as the crew in the film, moves on. We viewers are given little more than a few brief moments to feel any lingering pain before being swept away by the inertia of the film-making process and lifestyle. Truly, the show must go on.

Technically, the film is brilliant. While there are no special effects to speak of, the cinematography pulls off plenty of great little maneuvers to draw the eye. To add a layer, you are often getting to look behind the curtain of filming, as we see plenty of the wild and contorted techniques that the May I Introduce Pamela cameramen have to employ to achieve the desired shots. At times, it’s like watching gymnasts do magic tricks in the middle of their routines.

One of the many shots that's not only eye-catching but also pulls back the movie magic curtain a bit. 

On par with the visuals is the acting. Every person plays their part perfectly, from the highly emotional and quixotic actors to the earthier and more practical crew members. Even Truffaut, playing himself in spirit, if not in name, does admirably. The key is that virtually all of the characters are either intriguing, funny, tragic, or a compelling combination of all three. In this, Day for Night taps into the voyeurism that is at the core of the appeal of cinema. We want to watch what all of these people do with and to each other.

All of this being said, I doubt that I will ever watch the movie again. As much as I enjoyed it and can see its strengths, I simply don’t know what I could get out of a second viewing. Hardcore film experts and budding film-makers could probably milk it for endless inspiration and knowledge, but I’m neither. I’d recommend it to anyone who enjoys learning about the filming process and enjoys a healthy dose of oft-light drama and humor. It’s also a great little follow-up to the aforementioned 8 ½ .

Take 2: Why This Movie’s Considered “Great” (Done after a wee bit o’ research.) 

A very wee bit.

It would seem that this movie has gained its praise for the sheer love of film that it conveys. Roger Ebert revisited it in this 1997 review, and he expresses a lot of the enjoyable elements of it well. He points out how the film shows how all of those involved in the film industry, creators, actors and crew alike, are often inebriated on the culture of the filming process. The quirky, high-drama relationships that develop and then dissipate over the course of a few weeks of filming seem as a drug. I suppose it should be no surprise that film critics, almost all of whom must truly love the medium of film, would love such a movie. It taps into their own passions, so a playful, thoughtful, and entertaining movie on the subject is bound to be adored by the professional critics. Day for Night fits the bill.

After this little bit of digging, I feel that Day for Night is a touch overhyped. Compared to nearly all of the other movies on this list, including Truffaut’s own 400 Blows, Day for Night I feel is considered great more because of its subject matter rather than any standout novelty. I do think that viewers who are looking for something a little different and humorous would enjoy it, but perhaps shouldn’t expect the mind-blowing movie that you may expect from an “All-TIME 100 Film”. 

That’s a wrap. 71 shows down. 34 to go.

Coming Soon: Chinatown (1974):

The classic film noir genre gets brought up to date in this slick 1970's Roman Polanski classic. This film kicks off a great streak of 1970s movies in the coming weeks that are some of my absolute favorites. Come on back for my take on it.

 Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.