“Les films avancent comme des trains, tu comprends, comme des trains dans la nuit. Des gens comme toi, comme moi, tu le sais bien, on est fait pour être heureux dans le travail, dans notre travail de cinéma.”
— Day for Night (1973), François Truffaut
What if a film director wants a scene to be filmed at night, but circumstances can’t allow it? In our current age, characterized by the most advanced VFX to have ever existed in cinematic history, the demand doesn’t pose an issue at all. And yet, what if that question had been asked in, say, the ’70s? In that case, you’d most likely use the “day for night” technique, placing a filter on the camera’s lens or using an underexposed film stock. At least, that’s what one of the — if not the — most acclaimed directors of the French Nouvelle Vague movement François Truffaut does in his 1973 ode to cinema, Day for Night.
Day for Night makes use of the cinematic equivalent of the literary “framed narrative.” In the outer narrative, it’s summer on the Côte d’Azur as an international co-production is shooting the fictional Je vous présente Pamela, or, as commonly referred to, as just Pamela. As the “film within a film,” Pamela recounts the internal narrative of a newly-wed bride leaving her husband to elope with her father-in-law. Truffaut, in turn, becomes a “director within a director” and leaves the viewfinder to stand in front of the camera and play Ferrand — the exhausted, yet strikingly patient, director of Pamela.
In the opening scene of Day for Night, a film set of a Parisian plaza — built within the rustic countryside of Nice — stands still. Alongside the low sounds of a crane or a dolly, a sense of calm pervades the scene. And then, the magic word: action! Alphonse — the betrayed husband played by Truffaut’s career-long companion Jean-Pierre Léaud — starts walking across the plaza until he finds his father, Alexandre, standing in front of him. The two look at each other. After three seconds of silence, an enraged Alphonse slaps Alexandre in the face. Then, another word: cut! With the same force in Alphonse’s slap, the frame cuts to Ferrand sitting by the camera and yelling directions through a megaphone. Alphonse’s slap, then, isn’t solely a reflection of a son’s anger towards his father. Rather, the gesture is a tool to immediately slap the audience itself. Within the first five minutes, Truffaut urges us to wake up, to resume our disbeliefs, and to pay attention to the chaotic, imprecise, struggle-ridden, yet nonetheless disarmingly beautiful, craft of cinema.
When you watch Day for Night, you won’t be able to help but feel as though Truffaut himself was tugging at your sleeve, asking you to get closer, to see beyond the researched, acted and written two-dimensional product that will one day reach the screen of a theater.
He urges us to dwell in it, feel it, feel it all. Feel the disappointment of a malfunctioning prop, the pain of an actress on the verge of a nervous breakdown, the joy of dedicating one’s life to cinema, the frustration of an actor forgetting her lines over and over and over again or the shock of a cast member’s unexpected death.
Feel it as if you were a part of it and take it with you when you leave the movie theater because, even when the lights turn back on, the spell won’t end as it usually does. No, not this time. This time, the spell is life itself.