La Nuit américaine (Day for Night) is one of those films I watched during the first years of my cinematic exploration. I remember liking back then but when I saw it for the second time years after, at the Outremont Theatre in Montreal, my reaction to it was completely different. I the right way. I can now definitely say it’s one of my most favourite French films. And it was directed by François Truffaut. So, in any way, it’s a MUST. I saw Thoughts All Sorts‘s Non-English Language Blogathon as a good occasion to tell you more about the awesomeness of this film.
This 1973’s film is actually about the making of a film, Je vous présente Pamela (Meet Pamela), which tells the story of a newlywed couple whose bride eventually falls in love with her step-father and vice-versa. But Meet Pamela itself isn’t so relevant. What’s important about La Nuit américaine is to see the work of the cast and crew on the film. It’s something fascinating to witness and does make you want work on a film, despite the lot of problems that comes with that. Interestingly, the director, Ferrand, is played by Truffaut himself. The rest of the cast is as fascinating, but we’ll come back to it.
The title, La Nuit américaine, refers to this process of putting a dark filter in front of the camera to simulate a night scene, but during the day. The name of this process in English is called day for night. It’s a film about the glory of cinema. The thought of it is omnipresent in the characters’ minds from the beginning until the end. They live for it. Simple as that. And Joëlle (Natalie Baye) says it:
François Truffaut was an important figure of the French New-Wave with movies such as Les 400 Coups or Jules & Jim, but can we talk about New Wave in La Nuit américaine‘s case. Je ne pense pas. The thing is, we mostly associate this movement with the late 50s and the 60s. There are echoes to the New Wave style in La Nuit américaine, but it wouldn’t be the best representation of the movement either. I think the celebration of cinema actually could be what we associate the most with the French New Wave in this case. After all, the Truffauts and Godards of this world were all convinced cinephiles. La Nuit américaine, as it is indicated in an article by Le Cinéma Avec un Grand A might have been more influenced by Hollywood and Italian cinema. Also, if you compare it to Jean-Luc Goddard Le Mépris (Contempt) another film about the making of a film, an example that truly belongs to the French New Wave era, well, there’s no comparison. Besides, when La Nuit américaine, Jean-Luc Godard, who apparently hated the movie, sent a letter to Truffaut criticizing the way the movie industry is depicted and calling him a liar. He also reproached him a too mainstream approach. Truffaut was not pleased at all with Godard’s snobbism and, unfortunately, this led to the end their long life friendship, which Godard regretted, especially after Truffaut’s death. He died quite young, in 1984 at the age of 52. If you want to learn more about that, I suggest you watch the numerous Criterion DVD supplements. There are a lot of interesting stories.
But despite Goddard’s criticism, La Nuit américaine was well-received and won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, and Truffaut was even nominated for Best Director. The film was even called “the most beloved film ever made about filmmaking”. And I won’t deny it. It’s an intelligent film, but also an accessible one that everybody can enjoy. There’s something very agreeable in it. There’s a bit of everything: comedy and drama. Just the beginning makes you realize you’re about to watch something intriguing. It starts with a man (Jean-Pierre Léaud) coming out from a subway station. He then walks toward an older man (Jean Pierre Aumont) and slaps him. Immediately after, director Ferrand (Truffaut) shots “Cut!” The camera then shows us the film crew and we understand these are only two actors, Alphonse and Alexandre (we never know their last names), and that a film is being shot. I think it would be great to see this film for the first time without knowing anything about it. The surprise effect in this scene would be truly significant.
A good element of Truffaut’s film is the variety of the casting.
Once again, François Truffaut cast Jean-Pierre Léaud, who had starred in his first important film, Les 400 Coups, as Antoine Doinel. Léaud would star in a total of seven movies directed by Truffaut. Playing the role of the tragic Alphonse (who is cast as the groom in Meet Pamela), the young actor plays with an admirable easiness. There’s a lot of innocence in his character, but he’s also one that doesn’t like to be fooled. The mix of it is delicious. He knows perfectly how to play the diva because, yes, Alphonse is one!
British actress Jacqueline Bisset was cast in the role of Julie Baker (who plays Pamela in Meet Pamela). The beautiful actress is an absolute wonder in this film. There’s a true softness in her acting and it fits perfectly her character. Her accent adds a touch of authenticity to her character which is truly appreciated. Jacqueline Bisset is an admirable actress.
Jean-Pierre Aumont, who plays Alexandre, is cast as Pamela’s step-father in the film they are making. The charisma that surrounds this actor is magic. And we notice a great teamwork with co-actress Valentina Cortese. A charming actor, Jean-Pierre Aumont is hard to miss when he’s in a room. His acting is very natural and easily appreciable. No extravagance, sometimes is the best thing.
Severine, who plays the role of Pamela’s step-mother, was portrayed by the one and only Valentina Cortese. Her acting is more eccentric but it fits her character perfectly. So, we’re OK with that! What’s not to love about her? Her dynamism, her passion, and her devotion to the role are contagious. The Italian actress received her only Oscar nomination but lost it to Ingrid Bergman for Murder On the Orient Express (which also stars Jacqueline Bisset). The Swedish actress herself was in great admiration with her performance.
Winner of Four Césars, Nathalie Baye is now known as one of the most important actresses of the French movie industry. Bu, in 1973, she was only at her third role. Interestingly, her role of script girl was modeled on Truffaut’s own script girl Suzanne Schiffman. Billy Wilder even asked Truffaut if he used his own script girl for the film. When she heard about it, Natalie Baye felt a bit insulted, but she later saw it as a huge compliment. The role she plays, Joëlle, might be my favourite one in the film. The script girl would do anything to make sure the problems during the shooting are solved even if this means not sleeping at night. Natalie Baye acting is admirable and convincing. She was on the right track to win these numerous Cesars.
Who could think of a better person than the director of THE film to play the director of A film? François Truffaut’s acting is very humble, so he reminds convincing, even if acting was not his first vocation. It’s interesting how he sort of had to direct La Nuit américaine, but also the film within the film: Je vous présente Pamela.
I cannot talk about all the actors but I’ll conclude with Bernard Ménez who plays the prop man. A funny one! I like the way his role is highlighted which makes us realize the importance of a good prop. His part is secondary but, somehow, he seems to always be there. I like the way his character works on the film and how he dares saying what he thinks.
The rest of the actors were all brilliant and also deserved their praising: the Canadian Alexandra Stewart, the English David Markham (by the way, I just learnt he was born the same day as me. Interesting!), the French Dani, Jean Champion, Nike Arrighi, Jean-François Stévenin, Xavier Saint-Macary, and even author Graham Greene in an uncredited role!
La Nuit américaine offers a screenplay that, as I said, celebrates the art of film. Not only with discussions about cinema but also with the simple choice of great and well-researched lines. Each one of them is perfectly associated with the characters’ personality. This is important because what they say is as significant as what they do. Truffaut is one of those directors who understood that everything is relevant to a film. Narratively, La Nuit américaine could be used as a TO-DO example. This screenplay and the various lines inspire a devotion to the cinema but also reflect all its sides, the good and bad ones.
Here are a few examples of what I considered to be the best lines of the film and this, for various reasons:
1- Ferrand: “The Godfather” is showing all over Nice. It’s wiping out every other movie.
2- Ferrand: Making a film is like a stagecoach ride in the old west. When you start, you are hoping for a pleasent trip. By the half way, you just hope to survive.
3- Alphonse: [after being dumped by his girlfriend] I need money to go to a whorehouse.
4- Alphonse: I’m sure Ferrand is wrong. Life is more important than films.
5- Alphonse: Are women magic?
6- Ferrand: What is a film director? A man who’s asked questions about everything.
7- Ferrand: We’ll shoot the scene when you find a cat that can act!
8- Madame Lajoie: What is this – filmmaking? You call that a business? You’ve no morals. Everybody sleeps with everyone! What is it but a dirty lie. You call that normal? Filthy cinema- you’re a plague on the world! You smell of filth! You’ll pay for your sins! I despise you!
9- Alexandre: Remember when we first met in Hollywood?
Séverine: No dates! Never mention numbers! Or I’ll tell everyone you had a facelift!
Alexandre: Not yet. It’s coming! [Séverine laughs]
10- Alphonse: In your opinion, are women magic?
Alexandre: Some are, yes. Others, no!
11- Alphonse: Bernard, are women magic?
Bernard: Not women, their legs! That’s why they wear skirts.
12- Joelle: Everyone’s nuts on this movie!
13- Julie: I’m sick of disguises. I’m quitting movies. I know that life is rotten.
George Deleru’s magnificent score is something we can’t miss. It was perfectly composed in function of what’s happening in the film. At the beginning of the story, when they are shooting this scene where Alphonse slaps Alexandre, we feel the music follows the movement of the cameras, the machinery, and the actors. It’s a beautiful melody that makes the film even more agreeable to watch. For more tense scenes, Delerue uses a more tense sound. One of my favourite examples is when Julie Baker arrives at Nice at the airport.
Actually, this might be one of my most favourite scenes from the film for the way it’s shot. First, we see a very long shot of Julie’s plane arriving at the airport. Flashes start to appear. We’re not sure where they come from but they just announce numerous paparazzis that welcome Julie in the next shot. Delerue’s composition is what makes this scene kind of fascinating and make it looked like a brilliantly staged chaos. Unfortunately, I was not able to find a clip from this scene.
Music is also at its full glory in this scene where we only see the cast and the crew working. We don’t hear anyone speaking. Only images. The music, once again, accompanies perfectly the action. This scene is sort of presented to us like a movie clip.
La Nuit américaine is an absolute favourite of mine now and I do believe it’s the best film about the making of a film ever made. It’s beautiful, it’s entertaining, and it’s clever. If you haven’t seen it, I suggest you find the Criterion DVD (or BlueRay) and do it as soon as possible. Hoping you’ll be as fascinated by it as I am.
A film is a story, but the making of it is also one. And who could tell us this in a better way than the legendary François Truffaut?
Many thanks to Thoughts All Sorts for hosting this blogathon. Talking about other things than classic American films is refreshing and a good change once in a while. I thought of writing this article in French. Mais bon, we’ll stick to our habits.
Click here to access the other blogathon articles!
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– ” La Nuit américaine (film).” Wikipedia. 5 July 2018. https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/La_Nuit_am%C3%A9ricaine_(film). Accessed Jul 28, 2018.
– “La Nuit américaine, l’envers du décors selon François Truffaut.” Le Cinéma avec un grand A. 22 Jan 2018. https://lecinemaavecungranda.com/2018/01/22/la-nuit-americaine-lenvers-du-decor-selon-francois-truffaut/. Accessed Jul 28, 2018.
“La Nuit américaine (trivia).” IMDB. nd. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0070460/trivia?ref_=tt_trv_trv. Accessed Jul 28, 2018.