FRANCOIS TRUFFAUT HAS a fascination with film which borders on the perverse. As a child, he spent the long hours when his parents left him along going to the cinema. At twelve he was already sure he wanted to be a director. As a critic for Cahiers de Cinema he told directors what to do, and with The Four Hundred Blows, he began to do it himself. He was, from the earliest possible date, the complete cineaste.
Small boys move furtively through the world of Truffaut's first films, and lose themselves in the theater--in still another world dreamed and projected in darkness. Here there are already films within the film: the Renoirs and Vigos which Truffaut himself had seen many times. And the most effective scenes in his latest film, Day for Night, are a series of dreams in which a director, played by Truffaut, returns from the bright present to black and white boyhood. He repeatedly tries to steal a set of advertising stills of Citizen Kane through the barred front of a theater lobby, and finally grasping his prize, turns and runs off into the night. It is a scene you applaud.
But that's the high point, the one recognizably genuine Truffaut-ism in the whole thing. As for the rest, it is hard to decide whether the director is losing or finding himself in his efforts at self-consciousness. With all its removes and ironies, Day for Night seems the work of a man who is trying to run away from himself in order to see himself more clearly. The cineaste contemplates the director.
The least hopeful opinion in the film business today is that Truffaut is very close to burned out. A bank of admiring critics are scavenging his previous films for motifs to expand on. Truffaut himself has reportedly been undergoing psychoanalysis. He has even spoken, perhaps facetiously, of making another film in the Antoine Doinel series, (starring Jean-Pierre Leaud) in which the "alter-ego" hero tells in analysis what his director has done to him. In Day for Night, the mercurial Leaud character is joined by the director himself, playing a director. The separation is perhaps a sign of Truffaut's gropings for a new directorial maturity: at the recent New York Film Festival he commented that as he had once considered the great film critic Andre Bazin something of a father figure, he had come to look on Leaud as a son. Such is the distance which fifteen years of film-making have opened up.
DAY FOR NIGHT IS A film about the shooting of a film. The French title, La Nuit Americaine, is taken from the name of a Hollywood process for shooting night-time scenes during the day, through a filter; the film is also about the relation of film reality to lived reality. The term can be taken to stand for cinema itself: the magic, dreamy darkness brought to us by Hollywood. Day for Night is dedicated to the Gish sisters, pioneers of the star system, and the film being made within the film is a cheap melodrama. There are quarrels and affairs among the actors, and nostalgic recounting of old ways of film-making. There are many homages to figures from the whole history of film: The Citizen Kane Book left on a shelf, the sign for "the Rue Jean Vigo"--a real place, Truffaut claims.
But it is exactly this nostalgia, this weight of film's past, that makes Truffaut the cineaste dangerous to Truffaut the director. It has made Day for Night, for all its wit and cleverness, fundamentally a failure. Once, Truffaut led the way out of the past; now he seems to have hardened. The use of color, for instance, is practically an economic imperative now, but Truffaut favors the medium in which all his favorite directors worked, black and white. Truffaut's color films, especially the last two or three, have been seriously harmed by his refusal to admit that the color is there. Similarly, in seeking the ironies of a camera that is sometimes dramatic, sometimes documentary, Truffaut has ended up with an unsatisfying glibness of framing and editing.
Truffaut's earlier films, by contrast, pioneered new commercial arrangements at the same time as they advanced the idea of the director as auteur. Truffaut, at the head of the New Wave, developed the low-budget, non-studio film. Even now, in deciding to leave film-making for a couple of years, one of Truffaut's stated reasons is to learn English: he wants control over the economically necessary English versions. But there is a coinciding individual need, the auteur's need, at this stage of his career, to resolve his idea of himself and his future films.
AUTEUR THEORIES OF film have always been closely linked to a study of the expressive self, and for Truffaut the Doinel films, The Wild Child, with its version of natural man, and Fahrenheit 451, a view of the individual in a repressive dystopia, are all tied to this theme. Now he has made what seems to be seem kind of auteur ultimate: a film where the director is himself the individual studied. Comparisons with Fellini's 8 1/2 are hard to avoid, and they are not to the advantage of Truffaut's film. Truffaut has even borrowed Fellini's peculiar crane shots, although he shunts aside mention of the similarities by saying that 8 1/2 is "more poetic."
But the director Truffaut shows in Day for Night is not Truffaut himself, but Truffaut as he once was, and would probably always like to be. He makes decisions cooly, creatively, and offers an almost paternal sympathy to each member of the production crew. It is an image to match with the greats, a cineaste's idol, and--for better or worse--the creation of a director paying homage to himself.