Day for Night – review – The Guardian

Charlie Chaplin had been making movies for less than a month when he appeared in A Film Johnnie, a one-reel comedy about moviegoing and moviemaking set around the Keystone Studio. This genre of films with a movie background has flourished ever since, with pictures ranging from Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place to Satyajit Ray’s Nayak. While most are set in Hollywood, three of the very best are by European directors: Fellini’s , Godard’s Le mépris and Truffaut’s Day for Night (aka La nuit américaine).
Truffaut’s warm, humane film, made in 1973, can be seen as a delayed riposte to Godard’s acrid attack on the commercial cinema in Le mépris, the action of which it closely parallels. A vicious letter Godard wrote to Truffaut about Day for Night effectively turned their friendship into a bitter enmity.
Set in Nice’s Victorine Studios, where it was filmed, Day for Night is a touching, funny and accurate account of the travails (accidents, disputes, affairs, imbroglios, death) involved in the making of an all-star international picture called Je vous présente Paméla. It is a Pirandellian affair, an elegiac celebration of a dying kind of cinema, a meditation on the connection between film and life by Truffaut, who plays Ferrand, the film’s constantly troubled yet dedicated director, a man much like himself. Ferrand compares the process of film-making to "a stagecoach journey into the far west. At the start you hope for a beautiful trip. But shortly you wonder if you will make it at all."
He lives for the movies and at night has a recurrent monochrome dream about what appears to be a horrific childhood experience. It turns out to be a memory of stealing cherished stills of Citizen Kane from a cinema foyer. My favourite line is spoken by the lovely Nathalie Baye as Truffaut’s indispensable assistant: "I’d give up a guy for a film, but I’d never give up a film for a guy."
Le mépris is arguably a better, more trenchant film and has a commanding performance by Fritz Lang as the director of the film within the film. But Day for Night is the one I love, and among its many delights is the brief appearance as a British insurance adviser of Graham Greene, credited as Henry Graham. His real identity was unknown to Truffaut who cast him for his distinguished appearance, believing him to be a retired English businessman living in the South of France.
The film has a special moment that always makes my heart leap. It occurs when Truffaut receives a parcel of books, which he eagerly cuts open and tosses them one by one on to the table in front of him. They’re monographs on directors, all in French except for two – Robin Wood’s Hitchcock and a symposium on Jean-Luc Godard to which I contributed the chapter on Une femme mariée.


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