News And Commentary – Truffaut’s Day for Night

Worth seeking out is Francois Truffaut’s 1973 masterpiece Day for Night (La Nuit Americaine), just released in yet another characteristically marvelous special edition from the Criterion Collection.  Day for Night is a movie that is in love with the movies—Roger Ebert called it “not only the best movie ever made about movies,” but also “a great entertainment.”

Truffaut was the right man for that job.  Lou Reed once told of a woman whose “life was saved by rock n roll”—Truffaut’s life was saved by the movies.  Coming from a difficult childhood and troubled home, the truant, delinquent Truffaut found refuge at the movies – in particular, at the Cinémathèque Française – where he met fellow film fanatic Jean Luc Godard.  The two youngsters – along with movie-obsessives-in-arms Claude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer and Jacques Rivette – logged endless hours at the Cinémathèque, and all of those future auteurs spent the better part of the 1950s writing for the film journal Cahiers du Cinema.   

In 1954 Cahiers published Truffaut’s legendary, ill-mannered (if much more civil than his original 1952 draft) polemic “A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema,” which attacked the industry for its moribund attachment to ponderous prestige pieces – reverent adaptations of literary classics left in the hands of screenwriters – and called instead for a director-driven, introspective, personal cinema.  Five years later he would make good on his words with his first film, the intimate, deeply felt, loosely autobiographical The 400 Blows, which was awarded the prize for Best Director at the 1959 Cannes film festival.  (Godard’s celebrated debut effort, Breathless, would follow within a year.)

Truffaut (and Godard) quickly become enshrined in the pantheon of the Greats: the much beloved Shoot the Pianist and Jules and Jim followed 400 Blows (though I must say I prefer the neo-Hitchcockian The Soft Skin to either of those – and let me put in a plug for his last film, the underappreciated Confidentially Yours), though by the later 1960s the star of each would shine less brightly. Truffaut remained popular and bankable; Godard devolved into pedantic, warmed-over Maoism and semi-voluntary obscurity. 

Not surprisingly, the two old friends had a falling out, a parting of the ways that become final in the wake of Day for Night.  It is not unfair to suggest that some of Truffaut’s later films flirted with the sort of respectability that “A Certain Tendency” rejected.  Godard did more than suggest: “Yesterday I saw La Nuit Americaine,” he wrote to Truffaut in 1973.  “Probably no one else will call you a liar, so I will.”  Then, because he’s Godard, he asks his more successful (ex) friend if he might finance his next film, perhaps as penance for being a commercial filmmaker.    

Truffaut opted not to back Godard’s film, and wrote instead what has become a legendary response, which takes up six single spaced pages of his collected correspondence.  Many film buffs can quote its most famous line: “I feel the time has come to tell you, at length, that in my opinion you’ve been acting like a shit.” But more memorable still are the rarely quoted passages near the end (“between your interest in the masses and your own narcissism there’s no room for anything or anyone else”), that build to Truffaut’s hammer blow—that, speaking of lies, perhaps Godard’s own commitment is not quite the genuine article: “But you, you’re the Ursula Andress of militancy, you make a brief appearance, just enough time for the cameras to flash, you make two or three duly startling remarks and then you disappear again, trailing clouds of self-serving mystery.”   

The best put down in the history of cinema?  Arguable.  But Day for Night is a great film.