The term la nuit américaine—what in Hollywood is called day for night—refers to the practice, originating in Hollywood, of shooting night scenes in daylight, wherein a gradient tint over the image generates the appearance of moonlit night. The title of François Truffaut’s tragicomic La nuit américaine (Day for Night)—a film about the shooting of a (faux) film, Je vous presente Pamela (Meet Pamela)—thus refers more generally to the magic of cinema, its capacity to conjure a seeming reality from trick methods and artificial elements. Truffaut, who himself plays Ferrand, the scenarist-director of Meet Pamela, made La nuit américaine in part to express his boundless love of cinema, but the mediocre result he achieved suggests other motivations as well.
There is, of course, no doubting former film critic Truffaut’s love of film. He has dedicated La nuit américaine to Lillian and Dorothy Gish, and periodic inserts (in black and white in an otherwise color film) of a boy stealing a poster advertising Citizen Kane refer to the life-changing event, for him, of seeing Orson Welles’s film when it first appeared in France in 1946, when Truffaut struck puberty. Various long shots of actors on their marks, still until the cameras start rolling, whereupon they are suddenly in motion, indeed have a magical, intoxicating effect, and, though less effective, the various confusions between “real” and “Pamela” actions—action either in the film or in the film-within-the-film—possess some charm. Moreover, the film’s most moving and electric moment consists of Ferrand listening on the phone to music that Georges Delerue has composed for Meet Pamela—it’s the poignant main theme of Delerue’s score for La nuit américaine—while opening a package of new books about some of the filmmakers both Ferrand and Truffaut (and the rest of us) love: Dreyer, Bresson, Hitchcock, Godard, and so forth. This one moment, likely to reduce to tears anyone who loves film, is irresistibly lovely.
Alas, the majority of the film fails to approach this level of accomplishment. The various “real-life” activities of the actors playing in Meet Pamela, including their romantic entanglements, are pure soap opera; the revelation that one cast member, a revered former matinee idol, is gay is corny in the extreme. But even all this, including a surprise death, is somewhat more engaging than the Meet Pamela stuff, which for the most part is laughable (though not funny). Valentina Cortese, as an aging actress who can’t remember her lines or which door is which on the set, is terrific; her tour-de-force, which won her numerous awards both here and in Europe, is untouched by the film’s weakness. (We eventually learn the personal reason for the actress’s professional distraction. This is a film of delayed explanations.) On the other hand, it’s unmistakable that (1) Meet Pamela is going to be a dreadful movie and that (2) Truffaut in no way takes this into account or seems to reflect on the fact to the thematic advantage of his film. Some of the film is enjoyable; Cortese, Jacqueline Bisset* and, most of all, Jean-Pierre Léaud, after all, are wonderful actors. Léaud indeed takes the role of young Alphonse from endearing to frighteningly neurotic as Alphonse’s romantic life crumbles beneath him, dissolving a part of his fragile ego. The actors are not the problem. The tedious script is. The scenarists are Truffaut, Jean-Louis Richard and Suzanne Schiffman.
Why then did Truffaut make this film? What besides his love for cinema motivated him? I hate to state the obvious, but Truffaut sought the adulation that a bourgeois entertainment—for that’s pretty much all La nuit américaine is—might bring him. The authentic artist who had made The 400 Blows (1959) and Jules and Jim (1961) had already taken a drastic step on this degenerate path. The year before, his Les deux Anglaises et le continent (Two English Girls) had appeared in the vastly reduced version that Truffaut agreed to and fashioned himself once his producer balked at the original length and the film’s radical nature. (In the mini-version, le continent—in effect, the French boy whom Jean-Pierre Léaud plays—takes precedence over the two girls, who, based on Charlotte and Emily Brontë, are after all English, not French, and are played by English actresses, Kika Markham and Stacey Tendeter.) In time, Truffaut would come to regret his cutting the film; but in 1973, what he had helped do made him ripe for something equally unconscionable: La nuit américaine. Painfully ambivalent about whether he should function as artist or entertainer, Truffaut must have found that the mutilation of his Two English Girls made the decision that much easier for him; to shore up a wobbly ego, he would pursue profits and the audience acceptance that came with them. The final dismal proof of his sell-out is his participation (as actor) in Steven Spielberg’s soulless, buck-chasing monstrosity Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). I can’t recall whether it was before or after his death (from a brain tumor) in 1984 that Les deux Anglaises et le continent was restored to the fullness of Truffaut’s original wondrous vision. How different the last decade of his career is likely to have been if only he hadn’t compromised so radiant an instance of genuine art!
His compatriot Jean-Luc Godard, we all know, was shocked and disgusted by what he saw as La nuit américaine unrolled. Brutally, he may have (unconscionably) ended their friendship at that time; but he gave the world something remarkable in its stead: Numéro Deux/Essai Titres (1975), a film about the making of a film made as a direct response to Truffaut’s. Whereas Truffaut’s film is small and packaged, Godard’s is vast and exploratory. Whereas Truffaut’s film is staid and respectable, Godard’s is visually and intellectually adventurous. Whereas the director in Truffaut’s film soothes the frayed feelings of his actors and is most anxious about getting the film done by the time the money-people have designated for completion of the project, the director in Godard’s film worries most about the expressive nature of the form of his film, the thematic development of his material, and, above all, his responsibility as artist in the context of the larger world. (In Godard’s film, the film-within-a-film isn’t some faux-film but is the same film that Godard’s turns out to be.) Whereas Truffaut’s film functions apart from political concerns but nevertheless implies a political stance by the bourgeois accents it contains, Godard’s film addresses contemporary social and political problems, demonstrating in vigorous detail how the workplace, and how it’s organized and conducted, intrude upon and distort all other aspects of a person’s life.
I love Truffaut. How I miss him. (How we all miss him!) He was a jewel. Claude Miller’s The Little Thief (1989), moreover, is proof that Truffaut left behind a superlative story that, had he lived to make a film of it himself, likely would have signaled his renaissance as an artist—an event to which the restoration of Les deux Anglaises et le continent doubtless would have immensely contributed. There, Truffaut could see the great things he was born to accomplish. But what piddle is La nuit américaine**—something I regret to say even led Truffaut, more than a decade before Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather III, to make yet another Antoine Doinel film, Love on the Run (L’amour en fuite, 1979), purely to fill coffers, nearly a decade after the Doinel series had legitimately ended with Bed and Board (Domicile conjugal, 1970). This he followed with the financially triumphant The Last Metro (1980), a mediocrity that manipulates its audience no less than does The Sting or Jaws. The reduction of an artist is always a sad, even a tragic event, however it comes about. The downward trajectory of Truffaut’s aspiration and achievement provides a lesson for all artists—and a warning that death is ever poised to intervene to keep one from rejoining the ranks of the truly expressive and creative.
Keep working as an artist then, focused on the formal development of your feelings and ideas. Share your work, letting the character and strength of the work bring others to it; don’t corrupt your soul by compromising your work in the hope of bringing it to anyone (and everyone). What you owe you owe to art, not to an audience. It isn’t for you to pander to the audience; it’s for you to do your job well enough so that an audience—those capable of appreciating your work, however small the number—come to your work. If you aim to have as many people as possible like your work, you aren’t doing your job. You’re dancing with the devil. Keep doing your job.
Keep the faith—as, whatever form it has taken, Truffaut’s soul surely now wishes it had done: a wish prepared to taunt his soul for the rest of eternity.
* Bisset’s Julie Baker refers directly to Bisset’s own troubled mental history. Like Richard Brooks’s direction of soon-to-be-ex-wife Jean Simmons as an alcoholic whose troubled life echoes her own, in The Happy Ending (1969), Truffaut’s film seems to tread a reality/nonreality line that hits spots both sensitive and cruel. However, I am certainly not suggesting that anyone is more qualified than Jacqueline Bisset to play (in effect) Jacqueline Bisset.
** Goodness knows, many love the film. (And why not? The film courts their affection.) La nuit américaine was named the year’s best film by the French critics, the British Film Academy, the National Society of Film Critics, and the New York Film Critics Circle, all of which also named Truffaut best director. The film also won the Oscar as best foreign-language film. But what avails an artist if he gains a lot of praise and prizes and loses his way?
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