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There has never been a bigger fan of movies who actually managed to make them than François Truffaut. Each of his films feel like a love letter to cinema and none of these letters was better written than La Nuit Américaine. The film, named after the process for shooting night scenes in the day (better known as Day For Night in English), won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language film in 1974 and was nominated for three more awards in 1975.
La Nuit Américaine is about the making of Meet Pamela, a complicated co-production between American and French producers that Ferrand (Truffaut) has been hired to direct. It will feature worldwide icon Julie (Jacquline Bisset) and Alphonse (Jean-Pierre Leaud) and has a run-of-the-mill, boring soap opera plot where the girl falls in love with her fiance's father. Of course, nothing behind the scenes goes as planned. Julie arrives arrives late, film gets destroyed on the way from the labs, the older Italian diva can't remember her lines, Alphonse has his heart broken by the script girl and that's just the start.
Unlike any other film about filmmaking, Truffaut's film is a tribute to the entire, all-consuming process. The audience gets to see how films are made and that nothing comes easy. A director is much more than just the artistic force behind the film. Ferrand somehow has to put together a puzzle even if all the pieces don't fit. Truffaut and his character (who are impossible to separate) are in love with the process. In one scene, he brushes off a chance to go out with woman. Instead, he spends his night in his hotel room with his assistant, talking out ideas to make a last second re-write. At this critical point, Truffaut makes the audience wonder: does Ferrand work on his film because he loves it more than life itself or because he has to? That's an easy question to answer, since his character, like Truffaut, is consumed by movies. He even spends every night dreaming about the moment he stole Citizen Kane cards from a movie theater.
While Truffaut is the guiding force behind Day For Night, his actors are the ones who make sure his themes get across. By Jean-Pierre Leaud's very presence, we feel like we're watching a documentary on the making of another Truffaut film rather than a fictional feature. After all, their careers are forever intertwined thanks to The 400 Blows (1959), which introduced them to the world. Then, there's the beautiful Jacqueline Bisset, who, despite her character's past, manages to be the one cool head on set. But her Julie is not without her problems, since she just got over a nervous breakdown during her last production.
Neither of the film's two stars were recognized by the Academy in 1975, when the film was eligible for the other awards. However, Valentina Cortese scored a nomination for Best Supporting Actress. The veteran Italian actress was recognized by critics around the world for her role as an actress on the wane. She really steals the film when she struggles to remember her lines.
That whole scene – again – brings us back to Truffaut's mastery of film. Rather than make us sit through take after take of this actress struggling, he presents us with new views of the scene with each take. He shows us how the set looks for the crew, for Cortese and how it would look in a finished film. That's a genius move and shows us the artificiality of film, which is another theme weaved throughout. The director might be in love with his work, but he's not afraid to shy away from the facts – it's all fantasy.
When I think about the great films about movie making, I will always immediately put 8 ½, Singin' In The Rain and The Bad and the Beautiful near the top. But Day For Night deserves a place there. Film, like any job, is something you have to love to do well and no one loved this job as much as Truffaut.
In 1974, Day For Night won Best Foreign Film (France). The following year, the film was nominated for Best Director, Supporting Actress (Cortese) and Original Screenplay (Truffaut, John-Louis Richard & Suzanne Schuffman).
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