It is probably not best to view a parody before you see the original work that is its subject. But in this case, I think no harm was done. I laughed out loud the moment I recognized the music that underscored the crane shot in the opening sequence of François Truffaut’s Day for Night (1973), having first heard it in this silly gem of an American Express commercial by Wes Anderson. Anderson, noted for his admiration of Truffaut along with other filmmakers, has no shame in pilfering shots, music, or other elements from films he admires. You can also hear the same music cue in the trailer for Day for Night (pardon the unfortunate English dub). Anderson even riffs on the scene where Truffaut’s character has to choose from a tray of guns needed for a later scene, as he gives us his tongue-in-cheek homage to Truffaut’s behind the scenes look at filmmaking.
The plot of Day for Night, such as it is, is simple. We observe the making of a film, “Meet Pamela,” starring Julie Baker (Jacqueline Bisset), Alphonse (frequent Truffaut lead and alter-ego Jean-Pierre Léaud), Séverine (Valentina Cortese), and Alexandre (Jean-Pierre Aumont), and directed by Ferrand (played by Truffaut himself). Alphonse is a childish, somewhat simplistically romantic, yet possessive figure, who is jealous of his girlfriend’s roaming and unserious relationship with him. Julie is newly wed to her elderly doctor after a recent breakdown. Séverine is insecure about her aging and uses drink to overcome it, which makes her memory problems even worse. Alexandre is the elder statesman of the cast, offering a calm center to the production, but dogged by his more reckless past as a “ladies man.” Day for Night‘s colorful supporting cast fleshes out the roles of the propman, script girl, producers, and other production assistants and technicians, often with humorous effect.
Despite interesting characters, the real subject of the film is filmmaking itself. This is one of my favorite types of films, where the nature of the medium is explored in creative ways. Truffaut wishes right from the start to employ what I call suspension of belief, drawing deliberate attention to the technical and stylistic elements of film that are being used to create the image, by placing the soundtrack visibly on the screen along with the credits. He doesn’t want you to get lost in the story by artful methods, but rather uses the story to keep you engaged in an examination of the techniques of the medium.
Initially, it seems like Truffaut might be making what we now call a “mockumentary,” a fictional account which uses the techniques and grammar of documentary filmmaking. He begins with some mostly standard “behind the scenes” footage of the making of “Meet Pamela,” and even cuts in some fake interview footage with Alphonse and Alexandre from a TV crew that is documenting the film’s first day. But Truffaut quickly mixes in other modes of cinematic storytelling, perhaps first in the rapid cutting of close shots of the slap that ends the crane shot, to indicate the number of retakes that are being done in a stylized collapse of time. He expands further away from documentary conventions by including voice-over narration of character’s thoughts, occasional freeze frames, and even stylized dream sequences. All of these cinematic techniques draw attention to themselves, especially since they are used sparingly, and not as part of an overall stylistic scheme for the film. This is not to mention that large portions of the film are done in a conventional (fictional) narrative filmmaking style which follows the characters into private situations, and takes shots from angles that could not be achieved by a standard documentary filmmaker. He is at pains to make us remember that this is a movie of the making of a movie. Filmmaker and critic David Cairns agrees that “Truffaut wishes to explore the fakery of cinema.”
Truffaut was of course himself originally a film critic, and like his follower Wes Anderson, continued to wear his influences on his sleeve. In the dream sequences, we see Truffaut’s character restlessly dreaming in black and white about a boy who walks down the alley tapping a cane. We see this dream three times—almost as if there were re-takes of the dream—only seeing it in full the last time, where the meaning of the cane (Kane?) becomes clear. The boy uses it to reach beyond the gates of a cinema and pull a display of photos to where he can reach through the grate, and steal them. The photos are stills from Citizen Kane. James Naremore observed in his book, “The Magic World of Orson Welles,” regarding Citizen Kane that “Welles’s brilliant manipulation of cinematic technique keeps reminding up that we are watching a movie, and exceedingly clever and entertaining manipulation of reality, rather than reality itself.” Following this lead, Truffaut even adds scratches to artificially and ostentatiously age the black and white image of the dream, much as Welles had in some of the newsreel in the opening scenes of Kane.
A couple other plot points illustrate the way Truffaut plays with the theme of illusion in cinema. The gossip among the crew indicates that Séverine and Alexandre had had a romantic relationship in the past, but this is never directly confirmed by the principles themselves. Séverine clearly has a great affection for Alexandre, but he is coy about it. He makes frequent trips to the airport, which everyone presumes is to meet a paramour, but when he brings his companion back to the set, it is a handsome young man. Apparently his status as a “ladies man” may be a fake, a front to conceal his homosexuality. Throughout Day for Night, Truffaut cleverly reveals character not only through these “off-camera” episodes, but through the filming of the takes and re-takes of
One such scene, one of the most gently humorous in the film, is when a frustrated Ferrand films take after take with a small cat, trying to get the feline actor to go to a tray of milk and lap it up. The scene is only achieved when they replace the cat with a different one. When the replacement cat finally approaches the dish and begins to lap up the milk, the camera comes in close, but seems to struggle to maintain focus on the animal. Off-camera, we hear someone’s voice crying to keep the cat in focus, which seems to be directed towards the cameraman operating the camera whose image we are viewing. But when “cut” is called, the camera pulls up and pans over to look at Ferrand and the crew, including the camera which is filming for “Meet Pamela.” So again we have our attention drawn to the making of not only the film within the film, but Day for Night itself, as the direction for one film seems to reach out and speak to the film a level above it.
“Making movies. How do you do it? What’s it like?” Asks Wes Anderson, playing himself in the American Express commercial. He then interrupts himself to give a note to his actors: “It sounds fake.” But sometimes with filmmakers like Welles, Truffaut, or Anderson, that’s the point. Showing the audience how the magic trick is done—that it’s all fake—can actually be part of the magic. Truffaut let us know when he called the movie Day for Night, a technique of frequently unconvincing movie fakery, that that was just what he was going to do. And it is pretty magical still.