10 years prior Jean-Luc Godard made his own film about movie-making entitled Contempt (1963). It too delved into what it looked like to make films, as well as the individuals behind the camera because their relationships undoubtedly affect what is revealed in front of it. His colleague Francois Truffaut came out with his own meta film about film, but Godard was open with his criticism. In fact, their long friendship suffered because Godard accused his longtime collaborator of selling out and telling a lie.
However, if we look at Day for Night today, that feels a little harsh, because while Truffaut’s film is engrossing and different than his earlier New Wave work, he is in general a more accessible director on the whole than Godard. That should certainly not take away from what he gifted to his audience. What he does is color the lines between film and real life. Because, while one mirrors reality, it can never quite replicate it and things get messy when the two begin to get in the way of each other.
Immediately we are thrown into a street scene only to learn minutes later that it’s only a set; these commonplace people only extras filling up a cinematic space. It’s the perfect entry point into the meta nature of the film. Ferrand (Truffaut himself) is the director flooded with all your typical problems, setbacks, and deadlines. He must work around his stars, navigating the drama that comes about with so many personalities all gathered together. Severine is a has-been starlet with troubles remembering her lines. Alexandre is her love interest, a fading star in his own right who is aging gracefully. Alphonse (Jean-Pierre Leaud) is the young heartthrob, who secured a script girl position for his girlfriend, but their playful romance is not without bumps. All the while everyone waits with baited breath for the arrival of transcontinental star Julie Baker (Jacqueline Bisset), who has recently recovered from a nervous breakdown followed by a marriage to a distinguished doctor.
We are privy to series of takes, rushes, and all the decisions that are going on behind the scenes. It is in many ways far fuller and more in-depth than the picture Godard gives, but Truffaut maintains the same respect for his heroes. He goes so far as name dropping: Hitchcock, Hawks, Bresson, Godard himself, Bergman, Rossellini, Lubitsch, Bunuel, Jean Vigo, Jean Cocteau, not to mention an initial dedication to the Gish sisters. Even Citizen Kane and The Godfather, two of cinema’s landmark achievements, are both alluded to in passing.
But adding an exclamation point to everything is the drama of death, romantic affairs, and even a pregnancy, suggesting that life is a lot messier than a moving picture. All the strips of celluloid get tied together in a nice bow. They can be explained away by a plot point. They can be completely discarded on the cutting room floor. Or a double can be hired as an easy fix for any discrepancy. In this, there is a falseness that fails to perfectly align with reality. There is no perfect way to convey the truth, because everything, even a documentary, can never be subjective reality. A mirror image is only a reflection of what is real. That is part of what Truffaut is getting at and that is part of the irony of his row with Godard.
You only have to look at its title, because Day for Night points to the inherent artificiality of cinema, but Hollywood films especially. So, far from telling a lie, Truffaut seems to riddle the film industry with all sort of holes, pointing out the difficulties that come with such a business. Life and film may meet and overlap, but they can never truly reconcile their differences because there is bound to be contention along the way that cannot be perfectly remedied by even the greatest director.
But far from condemning the art form, it’s important to realize Truffaut is pronouncing his undying affection for the medium. He was the one who famously asserted, “I have always preferred the reflection of life to life itself.” This man unquestionably loved movies and it shows.