Friday, February 06, 2009

A brief comment on Day for Night

This is perhaps my favorite scene (out of many fine ones) in Day for Night (1974; dir. François Truffaut; Wikipedia entry here), which I watched last night thanks to Larry the movie-guy's lending generosity. It shows a dream of Ferrand, the director of Day for Night's film-within-a-film, played by Truffaut himself:

Some comments below the fold.

It may be worth mentioning that at two earlier points in the film we see shorter versions of the dream: in the first one, we just see the boy walking down the street with his cane (Kane?); in the second, we see that and his arrival at the cage, against which he bangs his cane.

What I especially like about this scene is that it works nicely on several levels. For one thing, it stands alone; you don't need to know that it's a film director, much less Day for Night's film director, who's dreaming this. At the level of self-contained vignette, then, this sequence enters into a kind of dialogue with Citizen Kane (1941). The cage closing off the cinema entrance evokes the fence surrounding Kane's Xanadu in that film's opening sequence--a fence which, by the way, also seeks to protect the (figurative) image of its builder. The young Ferrand, then, is able to accomplish something that the reporters in Citizen Kane could not accomplish: penetrate those barriers not by attempting to solve the mystery of "Rosebud" but by taking possession of the story of their failure to solve that mystery--which, as viewers know, also contains the answer to that mystery.

The extent to which Ferrand as a filmmaker is able to solve mysteries through his own art, though, seems to be an open question, at least as Day for Night poses it. Filmmaking is illusory in more ways than one. It's a job: its success or failure depends in large measure on the ability of actors and crew to keep their obsessions and weaknesses from interfering with their job; its making is driven by money and schedules--those of producers and those of actors. Those truths remain backstage, off-camera; viewers see only an illusion that seeks to persuade them that what they're seeing really happened.

If the dream sequence is a happy one in and of itself, as seems to be the case, might Day for Night be in some ways something like Ferrand's waking nightmare--or, if that's too strong, something like the inverse of the boy Ferrand's happy fantasizing . . . like Kane, someone seduced (not always unhappily, to be sure) by illusions of his own creating? (If I'm recalling correctly, immediately before the dream Ferrand is tossing and turning in bed because he's just learned that he has five fewer days to shoot his film than had been originally planned.) It is difficult to say for sure, as it is with so much in this film so intent on blurring the distinction between the film being made and its actual making.

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