Day for Night marks an entrenched line in the sand for cineastes; it necessitates an either/or reaction to its willful neglect of politics, eroticism, and economics. Jean-Luc Godard had such a reaction and let director François Truffaut know as much in a letter he wrote shortly after seeing (and walking out of) the film, after which Truffaut responded by calling Godard a “shit.” The filmmakers, allegedly, never reconciled. Subsequently, Godard would go on to use mixed media in films like Numéro Deux and Comment Ça Va, while Truffaut acted for Steven Spielberg in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the very sort of commercial filmmaking Godard abhorred. The legacies are clear: Truffaut was passing the cinephilic, dyed-in-the-wool baton to Spielberg and Godard was looking beyond the cinema, rebuffing nostalgia, and refusing to settle for populist pleasures of any sort.
Such context isn’t merely backstory, but essential for understanding and evaluating Day for Night, a work which is ultimately a guarded apologia for its filmmaker, since Truffaut’s entire notion of filmmaking, from the work of crew members, to screening dailies, to placing a beautiful woman’s face in the middle of a tight close-up, is one dictated by a romanticism for the medium and contentedly shirks those surrounding implications that Godard deemed necessary for meaningful expression. It’s both naïve and disingenuous, because Truffaut sublimates the film’s purported obsessions with the machinations of filmmaking into an acceptable form of psychological consumption: an escape into the self, disguised as a dream. Cinema as self-affirmation, moviemaking as a source of passion—these became beacons for the American independent movement in the 1990s and, for my money, all of this can be traced to Truffaut, specifically Day for Night, where his years of failed commercial ventures resulted in a helpless plea for authorial significance.
Ferrand (Truffaut) is directing Meet Pamela, and becoming fed up with his aloof cast and crew. Alphonse (Jean-Pierre Léaud) is the film’s leading actor and quickly losing his grip on reality. He’s a “jealous type” and when his lover (and script intern), Liliane (Dani), says she’d like to go to dinner, Alphonse explains how they’re “in a city with 37 movie theaters” and will grab a sandwich if they have time. The exchange epitomizes Truffaut’s autobiographical tack, where the young intellectual whose world revolves around cinema is lightly prodded and made fun of, but ultimately meant to be embraced and greeted with warmth. After all, Leaud’s casting confirms Day for Night’s gestures to Truffaut’s other work, namely the Antoine Doinel films. Moreover, Ferrand has a thrice-occurring dream of a young boy walking to a cinema, and snatching a still from the marquee out front, which is being used to promote Citizen Kane. The black and white sequences are explicit references to The 400 Blows, Truffaut’s debut where Doinel and a friend skip school and go to the movies all day, and are later castigated by Doinel’s mother for “ruining their eyes” by spending countless hours sitting in front of the silver screen. As the dream commences each time, Ferrand is haunted by voices in his head, asking the very questions Godard would later pose. While Truffaut acknowledges these criticisms, he doesn’t actively address them; his avoidance condemns Day for Night as an evasive, even craven act.
The subtext for Meet Pamela may remain unclear, but Day for Night makes its self-interest apparent, most notably in a scene where a cat is meant to happen upon a breakfast tray, sitting just outside of a door. The scene in Day for Night recreates an identical moment from The Soft Skin, an earlier Truffaut film. In this instance, as the crew hopelessly tries to wrangle the cat, one realizes Truffaut’s shallow cinematic interests. That’s because the actual text here is merely an acknowledgement of one of his past films; it’s a wink and a nudge, no more. Truffaut’s engaged in a defiant act of reflection, not reflexivity, and the difference is crucial to identifying his conservative, ultimately sentimental deployment of nostalgia, which fetishizes medium-specificity as its linked to a reminder of one’s own time and place. Thus, one may accept Day for Night as a lark and a cheeky confirmation of its director’s wit, but to herald it beyond these meager terms betrays a progressive cinema capable of more than simply reaffirming its ability to serve as a warm and fuzzy time capsule.
Overall, this new Blu-ray transfer from the Criterion Collection is a stunner, but the image has curious patches where it’s noticeably washed-out, fuzzy, and degraded, as if Criterion were inexplicably unable to polish certain segments of the film. These instances often come at the end of reels or in brief shots, but the difference is both wholly noticeable and distracting in its puzzlingly poor quality. Nevertheless, these bad clips run less than a minute total. The remainder of the transfer is as meticulously and obsessively composed as Truffaut’s own filmmaking efforts, with colors vibrant, a clear and focused depth of field, and close-ups, especially of Jacqueline Bisset, suited to Truffaut’s perfectionist desires. The monaural track is lovely, especially when Georges Delerue’s score resounds through the speakers. Unlike the image, there are no notable imperfection or flaws.
A plethora of worthwhile material, the supplements here constitute one of Criterion’s most muscular efforts of 2015 so far. In what should become a controversial piece, video essayist :: kogonada defends Day for Night for its explication of its makers passions, and primarily does so by breaking down the three dream sequences to explain how each pieces together the film’s crux and core meaning. :: kogonada believes the sequences constitute a confessional, whereby the young boy, a "thief in the night," allegorizes Truffaut’s own pursuits as an artist. The lifting of a still mirrors Truffaut’s previously stated certainty that all artists steal and that by "kneeling at the altar of cinema," one engages in and contributes to a lineage. While the maneuvering of clips and points is impressive, :: kogonada’s work is less an argument than a poeticized attempt to valorize Truffaut’s cultural importance, and is reliant on rhythmic patterns of speech rather than causal points to establish his own claims. As a visual interrogation of Truffaut’s work, it’s impressive and enlivening; as scholarship, it’s dubious, at best.
Fortunately, Criterion recruits scholar Dudley Andrew to cover the academic front, and the result is a 20-minute tour de force of context and analysis that could immediately promote even the most novice scholar of the Nouvelle Vague up a rank or two. Andrew details the exchange of words between Truffaut and Godard with a lucidity that escaped the whole of 2010’s Two in the Wave and explains how the events in May of ’68 mark the souring of their relationship. Furthermore, Andrew delves into the complaints Godard had about Day for Night, particularly that Ferrand, the director, doesn’t have sex in the film, while Truffaut, on his actual sets, tried to sleep with all of his leading actresses. Godard calls hypocrisy, but Andrew quickly points out Godard’s own, noting that he too was known for bedding his actresses. An encapsulation of larger issues, this terse featurette will likely become required viewing in film courses for years to come. Rounding out the behemoth disc are nearly a dozen separate interviews with cast and crew, a 2003 documentary with commentary by film scholar Annette Insdorf, three newsreel briefs taken from the set during production, a behind-the-scenes featurette, the film’s trailer, and an essay by critic David Cairns, which calls upon the words of Buster Keaton and Martin Scorsese to help legitimate Truffaut’s obsessions.
Day for Night might be a misguided paean to cinematic love, but Criterion’s Blu-ray is positively magical, with a blistering array of divisive supplements.