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Truffaut's 8 1/2
on 18 April 2012
All of Truffaut's works are autobiographical. Day for Night is merely the most obvious case of this self-scrutiny. It has the loose charm of many of his films. It begins with a scene in which there are too many people, in which there is too much light and too much charm. To the casual eye, this looks like a misjudgement of direction. By the end of the film, however, the mistakes have all been corrected by the real director (Truffaut as the normal, invisible, Truffaut rather than the version we see playing himself) and the scene works powerfully.
Truffaut is capable of self-parody and this film proves it. And yet, it teases us for a long time. Is it really just a much less sophisticated version of Fellini's 'Otto E Mezzo'? After all, the black-and-white flashbacks of the mini-Truffaut look like a completely misapplied understanding of Fellini's subtle Jungian detours into memory and fantasy. And, if the film had continued in this vein, with the story's director (Truffaut playing himself) seeming remote and uninteresting, we would have thought the film an embarrassing failure.
Yet, from the moment that Jacqueline Bisset appears, the film jumps into a more pressing and infinitely more vital version of itself. We now have a real film-star, rather than the pretend ones and we engage more deeply with the story, because of the magic of film narrative. Leaud plays his usual self: vain, childish, selfish, barely professional, a parody, in fact, of the idea of an actor an even of Leaud to this point in his career with Truffaut. Bisset's character, on the other hand, confounds our expectations: an American but she speaks pretty good French, has recently been recovering from a nervous breakdown (very common to the profession), has married against type and is effortlessly glamorous while yet being totally professional.
Artfully, Truffaut has wheeled in his Trojan Horse. In giving us a character we care about and like to look at, Truffaut brings out a real film inside this pretend film. We are suddenly and charateristically back to the central preoccupations of Truffaut's personal and professional life: love and the art of film-making. For Truffaut, this arena is all there is. Within his world, there are no other truths: the military-like precision of the demands of working on set or location; the human demands of hte heart in this heightened but also delusory environment. This, for him, the state of permanent war in which he has to construct all of his values and rewards.
This is why the Truffaut we see (the character supposedly Truffaut himself) is like a machine. It is the reduction of Truffaut to a set of functions-on-set. It is what the world might see if they'd understood nothing about what really drives a filmmaker to sacrifice the pleasures of a more normal bourgeois life. The cleverness and considerable art of this film is to deconstruct film-making through the auto-deconstruction of the characters' lives. It is a double metaphor, like a double-agent. We understand that film is about love through seeing people deconstructing, destroying and improvising love. They deconstruct love to understand their lives on film (and vice-versa). In doing so, Truffaut makes a whole story of normal human lives (for which this pseudo-film is, of course, another metaphor) and this completed story is the film narrative we came to see.
Day For Night (a hint of the smoke and mirror interplay of the metaphors in the title) will certainly resonate keenly with filmmakers and actors: the famous sequences, neo-documentary passages of classical music to the turning over the camera with its revolving feet-and-frame counters may even reduce them to tears. But this is just another captivating face of the underlying metaphor. This is, in fact, a film for and about everyone: we build our lives on metaphors of love. Rather than being a failed 'Eight-and-a-Half', this is a very human Truffaut version of autobiography and, for many people, is even an even more honest and moving than Fellini's great work. 'Day for Night', with all its deceptive simplicity, turns out to be just like the rest of Truffaut's films, only more so.