Films by François Truffaut, probably the most famous and commercially successful of the French New Wave directors, usually leave me a little cold. I knew he wouldn’t be my master when a film instructor, breathless with enthusiasm, showed our class Jules and Jim and it left me somewhere between indifferent and hostile. Godard’s description of Truffaut as a “failed novelist” may explain some of my feelings about the latter. I don’t dislike his films, but those I like the most are the more conventional and melodramatic ones.
Of all the films about film making that I have seen, Day for Night comes closest to capturing the ups and downs making a movie involves. It is a triumph of texture, however, with no great insight into the process. (Assuming there is one to have.) Focused on the production of a routine film directed by an undistinguished director (played by Truffaut himself) the film dances around the foibles and emotional intricacies of the cast and crew. As they struggle to finish a minor melodrama, Je vous présente Pamela (Meet Pamela), we recognize that even the most ordinary of film productions requires dogged commitment and almost superhuman tolerance of idiosyncrasy.
There is nothing particularly profound or even colorful about the depiction. In fact, it borders on the banal. Paradoxically, that very ordinariness is what makes the film so evocative. Filmmaking is not reduced to being “just a job,” but it is shown to be firmly rooted in the all-too-human personalities of the people involved. Combine wry observation with Truffaut’s unabashed love of the medium and it is hardly surprising that Day for Night so effectively captures the alternately frustrating and exhilarating experience that is film production.
As a filmmaker, I am predisposed to enjoy such a winsome depiction. How anyone else responds depends on Day for Night’s merits simply as a film. Audiences probably don’t care much about how accurately the film world is shown. They are concerned only with how compelling a story Truffaut provides. And it is here that his superficial approach works most cleverly. Precisely because the characters and situations are conventional and because nothing much is at stake beyond completing Pamela, audiences can enjoy Day for Night as a cheerful, mildly sophisticated entertainment. This is a film about film making that offers no challenge to expectation or even much to the characters. There is nothing like Godard’s radical dissection of the film and viewer relationship or the hallucinatory beauty of Fellini’s 8 1/2 or even any of the volcanic emotions of Minnelli’s Bad and the Beautiful.
Of course, Truffaut has no obligation to take any of these approaches. We should recognize, however, that his entertaining combination of melodrama and light comedy demonstrates a lack of ambition and imagination. For a film about a subject presumably dear to Truffaut’s heart, Day for Night is just a touch too easy. It may not be Meet Pamela, but it is surprisingly close.