"Making a film is like a stagecoach ride in the old west. When you start, you are hoping for a pleasant trip. By the halfway point, you just hope to survive."
This is what Ferrand, the director of a high profile melodramatic film tells the audience while he’s in the middle of production. As Ferrand, Truffaut basically plays himself in his 1973 masterpiece Day for Night, one of the greatest films about the filmmaking process ever made. All that matters to us film critics is the final product, and whether or not the feature we get is a timeless masterpiece, a forgettable piece of mediocrity, or an utter pile of crap.
However, during the chaotic production process of a movie, all the makers usually care about is to get through the exhausting and exhilarating experience with their sanity intact. Many great directors give answers similar to the stagecoach analogy regarding their production experience. Billy Wilder famously once said that he didn’t care about making a masterpiece during the production of any of his films, he just wanted to get to the finish line.
Day for Night works wonderfully as a fly on the wall documentary about the making of a film that doesn’t exist. Yes, it’s technically not a documentary and doesn’t even adopt a mockumentary style, but this is the easiest and quickest way to explain the film’s visual and narrative style. Truffaut drops us in the middle of the production for Ferrand’s film and perfectly captures the camaraderie, the chaos, the anxiety, and the magic of the filmmaking process.
In a style that must have been a big influence on last year’s Birdman, Truffaut follows different characters, all of which belong to different groups of the production, manically trying to solve their perspective challenges in order to serve the big picture. His style of panning between the different actions within the same sequence succinctly recreates the hectic energy of a film production.
Truffaut’s approach to representing not only his chosen profession, but also his reason to live, is that of utmost honesty. Instead of choosing a cynical approach like Robert Altman’s The Player, or an idealistic outlook like Fellini’s 8½, he represents each situation his alter ego encounters in the way that it would have related to him as a director. The idealism or the cynicism become organic offshoots of each situation he encounters.
Sometimes, filmmaking is a strictly technical process, where the practical aspects of getting through the shot overshadow any artistic aspirations in the moment. Truffaut deals with this brilliantly during a sequence where the entire cast and crew waits around for a cat to finally drink some milk in front of the camera. Sometimes, he has to turn into a father figure, a priest, or a therapist for the cast and crew at the drop of a hat, having to deal with personal issues that have nothing to with the artistic process. And sometimes, everything clicks together and a moment of pure cinema is captured.
In the middle of a fairly clinical and realistic visual style, Truffaut cuts to a series of dream sequences, shot in stylistic black-and-white. The scenes start with Ferrand asleep in bed, as the demanding voices from the crew flood his mind. As he drifts away into his dream, he remembers the time he used to steal lobby cards for Citizen Kane from the local theatre. These sequences, perhaps the best scenes in the film, put forth Truffaut’s reasoning behind filmmaking being his raison d’etre. Among all the chaos that surrounds him during production, he’s still connected to cinema as an art form.
Day for Night comes to Blu-ray from Criterion with a gorgeous 1080p transfer that captures the contrast and the grain of the film’s documentary look. As usual for Criterion, the release is packed with extras ranging from a group of interviews from the cast and crew and a visual essay about the film’s themes.
The most interesting feature is a short documentary about the philosophical rift between Truffaut and Godard that was taking place around the time Day for Night was made. Godard was turning into even more of an experimental filmmaker during the early 70s and didn’t appreciate Truffaut’s approach of putting cinema above artistic experimentation. As a critic who loves Truffaut and pretty much loathes Godard, this short feature was a fascinating look into their relationship.
Day for Night will come out of DVD and Blu-ray by The Criterion Collection on August 18th.