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Day for Night (Truffaut)

04/26/2011

Francois Truffaut’s Day for Night is a cinematic love-letter to the pains of filmmaking.  It is a widely known fact that story cannot exist without conflict.  I think this is true for both the storytellers, and the characters within the story.  Day for Night glorifies this struggle to overcome the type of problems that are born out of societal inconvenience.  The movie the crew is trying to make, Pamela, deals with unexpected love and tragic vengeance.  And while there is no sense of vengeance on the set of Pamela there is truly a romantic desperation that nearly derails the film on multiple occasions.

This is far from the only film about a production that mirrors its own story.  But where I find Day for Night to be unique is in its complete lack of pretentiousness concerning the correlation.  Where other films might have touted this deconstructionist narrative within a narrative as being a matter of profundity, Day for Night practically ignores the parallels, opting instead for a humorous take on how life imitates art imitates life imitates art.

Truffaut’s film gives the impression of being highly autobiographical.  The types of problems that the filmmakers deal with (ranging from a cat that won’t drink milk to an accidental death that nearly halts production) make up the primary conflict in the film.  As in real life, there is no specific antagonist.  Crap happens.  We just have to deal with it.  The ability of the filmmakers to overcome these problems gives us our sense of narrative resolution.  Which brings me to the method of story.

In most films there is something called a “set-up/pay-off” system.  A given fact of the movie’s universe is described at the beginning of the film, and then brought up again at the end of the film.  It is a useful form of narrative audience involvement because it forces the audience to think back to what they learned at the beginning of the film.  This then makes the audience feel smart that they remember it, and they feel better because of it.  In the case of Day for Night, the sorts of things that are set up are things that seem to be utterly forgettable, but end up getting played back at the end with very interesting impact.  In particular, I’m referring to special candle prop that features a little light bulb inside of it.  One of the prop makers shows the candle to the director (played by Truffaut) and as far as the audience is concerned, this scene only exists to help de-mythologize the movies.  But toward the end of the movie, we see an actress holding a candle up to her face, and it is not until the prop is specifically pointed out that we remember there was a trick to it.  This type of discreet and under-exposited storytelling really makes this film a rewarding experience.

While some critics have noted that this film ignores its characters in favor of anecdotes, I find it to be more an example of characters becoming anecdotes, and vice versa.  There is a certain charm to seeing a director calmly reassure an outrageously distressed actor, or seeing the same director have to make important decisions in the moment about whether or not a crew member’s car can be wrecked for a scene.

For a person like Truffaut, making a movie is synonymous with living out life.  There is no distinction between relationships and anecdotes, or between memories and stories.   To live is to experience, and the cinema describes a cumulative type of experience that condenses the amount of emotions a person might feel over the course of their entire life into a single two-hour experience.  You could almost say that film is storytelling but life is story-living.  For Truffaut, and certainly the characters within the world of Day for Night, there is no difference between the two.

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