Truffaut: The American Night


Throughout the ’70s, Francois Truffaut attained a revered not-so-elder statesman position in world cinema. He directed films that won an Oscar and several Cesars. He also permanently broke with his former colleague and friend Jean-Luc Godard. Truffaut was a lover of Hollywood films down to his bones, and chose to work in that style, while Godard went off into the avant-garde.

The film that broke them was Day for Night. Francois Truffaut won only one Oscar–it was for the 1973 Best Foreign Language film, and the winner was Day for Night. He was also nominated for Best Director and Writer for the film. Aside from The 400 Blows, it is Truffaut’s most acclaimed film.

By this time, it was clear that Truffaut was unabashedly a sentimentalist, and a lover of Hollywood cinema. The French title of the film is La Nuit Americaine, or The American Night, which is a term for shooting a night scene during the day (the American phrase for this is, natch, day for night). By using the word American in his title, Truffaut clearly, even at the height of his game, was still acknowledging the influence of American movies on his work. Consider a dream sequence where Truffaut, playing the director of the film-within-a-film, remembers as a child stealing the stills of Citizen Kane from a movie theater.

Day for Night is the story of a film being made, and it plays like an exciting adventure. Truffaut as the director is dogged but not mercurial–there’s a kind of business problem-solving aspect to him. He also, interestingly, is deaf, and wears a hearing aid on his sleeve. Unlike, say, the demonic figure Peter O’Toole plays in The Stunt Man, Truffaut’s Ferrand is an avuncular nice guy, who’s not above engaging in mischief like having his prop man steal a vase from the hotel they’re staying at.

The plot covers all the vicissitudes of making a movie, from insurance problems to temperamental stars to an actress who is pregnant to a cat not going for a saucer of milk to the death of an actor. Some of them are quite funny, especially embodied by Valentina Cortese as an aging star who hits the sauce a little too hard and can’t remember her lines (Cortese was nominated for an Oscar, and the winner, Ingrid Bergman, said that she should have won).

Several subplots run through the film. Jacqueline Bisset is the English superstar who has just come off a nervous breakdown. Jean-Pierre Leaud is a love-struck actor who gets dumped by a script girl, and then locks himself in his room. He comes out, wearing just a nightshirt, and asks for money for a whore.

But the overall theme of the film is the siren call of cinema to those involved. Nathalie Baye, who plays Truffaut’s assistant, can’t believe that a person would quit a movie for a man: “I would drop a guy for a film,” she says, “but never a film for a guy.”  Truffaut, luring Leaud back to work, tells him: “Go back to your room, re-read the script, learn your lines, then try to sleep. Tomorrow we work. That’s what matters. Don’t be a fool. You’re a very good actor. No one’s private life runs smoothly. That only happens in the movies. No traffic jams, no dead periods. Movies go along like trains in the night. And people like you and me are only happy in our work.”

Truffaut also seems to be interested in showing the sausage-making of film. We see how artificial snow is made, how a simple window dressing can stand in for an entire apartment, and how large crowd scenes are handled. Here, film is magic, but it’s also nuts and bolts and work.

The film is dedicated to Dorothy and Lillian Gish, and Truffaut pays homage to the silent era with his treatment of Bisset. She’s a perfectly capable actress, but Truffaut can’t stop glorying in her face. And it’s a great face.

There have been many films about the making of movies–screenwriters write about what they know, after all–and Day for Night may be the best one ever made.

In 1975 Truffat made The Story of Adele H., which is about as far from the French New Wave as possible. It’s an old-fashioned costume melodrama, and bit fusty to boot.

The film concerns Adele Hugo, the daughter of novelist Victor Hugo (in films like this and The Last Station, which was about Tolstoy, it’s kind of heartening that there was a time when novelists were the world’s most famous people). She has followed the man she loves, Pinson (Ben Robertson), a British officer, to Halifax, Nova Scotia, in the hopes that he will marry her. He’s kind of a drip, but our sympathy soon turns to him, as Adele is slowly revealed to be crazy.

So essentially this is a movie about a stalker. Adele, spurned by her former lover, writes her parents that they have married and her father places a wedding announcement in the local paper. This gets Pinson into some trouble, and he exposes Adele’s lie. Eventually he is reassigned to Barbados, where she follows, walking through town in a tattered dress, completely mad.

While this film is technically proficient and has an excellent performance by Isabelle Adjani in the title role (she was nominated for an Oscar), at a certain point I came to the realization, why am I watching this? Why does Truffaut think this is an interesting subject? There really isn’t much insight into Adele’s character. Yes, she lives in her father’s shadow, and had a sister who drowned, which troubles her dreams, but I fail to conclude how her story is different than any other woman in a similar situation.

The film does have its moments. My favorite scene has Adele attending the performance of a hypnotist. She goes backstage and wants to hire him to hypnotize Pinson to marry her, but when she sees that he’s a fake she storms out of the room.

This film won the Cesar Award, the French equivalent of the Oscar, but I didn’t think it was all that great.

Better was the very carefully titled The Man Who Loved Women. There have been many films about womanizers, Casanovas, Don Juans, skirt chasers, Lotharios, etc., but Truffaut’s 1977 film is a different sort of film. His protagonist, unlike many womanizers, who secretly hate women, is the opposite. He really loves women.

Charles Denner stars as Bertrand, a not especially good looking man who has a way with women. We get this idea from the opening scene, which is at his funeral, attended only by women. But, as the film moves steadily along, we realize he does not seduce women like someone collecting baseball cards, he loves them like a child loves candy, and could no more stop pursuing them than he could stop breathing.

Over the course of the film we will see his many romantic adventures, as he is putting them all down in a book. We start with him going to great lengths to find a woman whose only feature he spies is her legs. He jots down her license plate number, and then crashes his own car in order to report the number to his insurance company get her name. When he finds out she has gone back to Canada, he shrugs.

We also see him in a strange relationship with a psychotic married woman who likes public sex. She ends up falling in love with him and shooting her husband, going to prison. When she gets out she shows up at his place, while he has another woman in bed. The solution? A threesome.

But all is not roses and rainbows for Denner. He is in a state of arrested development–there is no chance of him marrying or settling down–and several women call him on it. But when his book is purchased, his new editor (Brigitte Fossey) understands this, and sees that he is not an egoist–he is the exact opposite. He doesn’t come on to women, as with the situation with the car, he connives to meet women indirectly. He spies a woman putting up a sign offering babysitting services. He hires her, and when she sees that there is no child she asks, “Where is the baby?” “I am the baby,” he tells her.

This film was remade as a forgettable American film starring Burt Reynolds, and so many American films about this kind of thing miss the point–The Man Who Loved Women is not some expression of a male fantasy. Some may aspire to a life like Bertrand’s, but in the long run he is unfulfilled and dies reaching for a woman’s legs.

The last film I’ll be discussing in my series on Francois Truffaut is 1980’s The Last Metro, which was not his last film, but the last that is available on DVD. It is to theater what Day for Night was to film; a backstage romance that has the added element of being set during the Nazi occupation of Paris.

Catherine Deneuve is an actress of major accomplishment who is running her husband’s theater after he flees the country. But quickly we discover he has not fled–he’s hiding in the theater’s basement. He is able to listen to rehearsals through a heating event, and gives notes to Deneuve who shares with them with the unknowing cast. As with Truffaut having his director character deaf in Day for Night, this is an interesting commentary on the limited power of the director.

The lead male in the play is Gerard Depardieu, who at first balks at taking the part, since the theater will not hire Jews. It is explained to him that they have no choice, or will they not receive permission from an unctuous arts commissioner. Depardieu and Deneuve are respectful to each other, but over the course of the film will fall in love, even while Depardieu secretly works for the resistance and Deneuve dutifully attends to her husband.

There are other subplots involving other members of the cast, including a lesbian designer, a gay director, and a stagehand who works wonders but dates a girl who ends up being a thief. The look of the picture is old-fashioned and luscious, evoking a period of time in which people went to the theater to stay warm, as they didn’t have enough coal to heat their own homes. After the show, they had to make sure to catch the last train, or metro, home, so as not to defy the curfew.

When I saw this film the first time, back in college, I was knocked out by it, especially by the tricky ending. This time I found it more perfunctory. Maybe it’s because I’ve seen a lot more “hiding from Nazi” pictures. Deneuve’s husband (Heinz Bennent) really is no danger–the one time the Nazis come to look they easily hide him–instead this movie is really just a series of anecdotes that just happens to be set during 1942. It’s hard to pinpoint the exact spine of the picture.

The film did receive an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, and swept the Cesar Awards. It was one of Truffaut’s most successful films.
There are many other Truffaut films that I was not able to see for these articles, as they are not on DVD. He left a rich if inconsistent filmography, but was cut short by an untimely death from brain cancer in 1984 at the age of 52. It isn’t hard to imagine that if he had lived his three score and ten that a lot more interesting films would have been made. As it stands, I think he is the most accomplished of all French directors, including Godard and Renoir.


About Jackrabbit Slim

Location: Vegas, Baby! I’m much older than the other whippersnappers here, a baby boomer. I tend to be more snobbish about film, disdaining a lot of the multiplex fare for “cinema.” My favorite films: Woody Allen’s oeuvre (up until about 1990), The Godfather, The Graduate, A Hard Day’s Night, Pulp Fiction. Politics: Well, George McGovern was my political hero. I’m also a prickly atheist. Occupation: Poised to be an English teacher in Las Vegas. For many years I was an editor at Penthouse Magazine. My role on this blog seems to be writing lots of reviews and being the resident Oscar maven.

2 responses »

  1. I’m not sure I disagree with your last sentence, but I’m not sure I agree with it either. I certainly like him better than Godard, who even in his best films is borderline insufferable. Renoir’s an interesting director, although I’ve seen so little of his work (only The Rules of the Game, Grand Illusion and The River) that I can’t really say one way or the other. It’s a tough call for me to decide between The 400 Blows and The Rules of the Game, though – the latter is so masterfully directed, while the former has more personal appeal to me.

    That said, I think that Truffaut was a very skilled director, but the appeal of his films to me goes beyond his raw ability. There’s a worldview on display in his films that is very striking to me – he internalized his love of cinema to his very core, and his enthusiasm for his work and his craft is always apparent. And it’s infectious – his love of cinema makes me love the cinema, even the movies of his that I haven’t liked as much.

  2. his love of cinema makes me love the cinema, even the movies of his that I haven’t liked as much.

    Funny how, for many people, this works the opposite in regards to Tarantino.

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