Thursday, June 14, 2012

Day For Night: Nouveaux Oreillers

La Nuit Américaine is a 1973 French film directed by François Truffaut. It stars Jacqueline Bisset and Jean-Pierre Léaud. In French, nuit américaine (American night) is a technical process whereby sequences filmed outdoors in daylight are underexposed to appear as if they are taking place at night. In the English-speaking world the film is known as Day for Night, which is the equivalent English expression.

La Nuit Américaine chronicles the production of Je Vous Présente Paméla (Meet Pamela), a clichéd melodrama starring aging screen icon, Alexandre (Jean-Pierre Aumont), former diva Séverine (Valentina Cortese), young heart-throb Alphonse (Jean-Pierre Léaud) and a British actress, Julie Baker (Jacqueline Bisset) who is recovering from both a nervous breakdown and the controversy leading to her marriage with her much older doctor. In between are several small vignettes chronicling the stories of the crew-members and the director; Ferrand (Truffaut himself) tangles with the practical problems one deals with when making a movie. Behind the camera, the actors and crew go through several romances, affairs, break-ups, and sorrows. The production is especially shaken up when Alphonse's fiancee leaves him for the film's stuntman, which leads him to a one night stand with Julie, when one of the secondary actresses is revealed to be pregnant, and when Alexandre is killed suddenly in a car crash.

One of the film's themes is whether or not films are more important than life for those who make them, its many allusions both to film-making and to movies themselves (perhaps unsurprising given that Truffaut began his career as a film critic who championed cinema as an art form). The film opens with a picture of Lillian and Dorothy Gish, to whom it is dedicated. In one scene, Ferrand opens a package of books he had ordered: they are books on directors he admires such as Luis Buñuel, Carl Theodor Dreyer, Ingmar Bergman, Alfred Hitchcock, Jean-Luc Godard, Ernst Lubitsch, Roberto Rossellini and Robert Bresson. The film's title in French could be read as L'ennui Américain ('American boredom'): Truffaut wrote elsewhere of the way French cinema critics inevitably make this pun of any title which uses 'nuit'. Here he deliberately invites his viewers to recognise the artificiality of cinema, particularly the kind of American-style studio film, with its reliance on effects like day-for-night, that Je Vous Présente Paméla exemplifies.

Day for night, pretending to sleep on new pillows,
this is me pretending to be in a movie,
pretending to be in one frame from a movie.

In the movie, of course, I’d be a young actor
and there would be space ships in special effects skies
and at some point the writer and the director
would laugh privately about movie make-believe
as a handsome actor and beautiful actress
pretended to be twenty-year old college kids
who use their physics skills to invent a space ship
but when they try to say the word ‘astronomy’
they always mispronounce it as ‘astrology’
and then they make the writer or the director
explain to them again the words aren’t the same.

Day for night is a cinematic convention
where the audience pretends dim blue light is night.

I’d pretend to bring home a production artist
and when she started to make a pencil drawing
I’d laugh and say, “This is movies! Take a picture!”

She’d laugh and say, “No one can suspend disbelief
because in movies no one ever sleeps alone.”

I’d say, “It will work because it’s science fiction
and in the end it’s really about the pillows.”

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