La Nuit Américaine

Tomorrow’s film therefore appears to me even more personal than an individual and autobiographical novel, more like a confession or like an intimate diary … The film of tomorrow will be an act of love.

– François Truffaut, 1957 (1)

A whole era of cinema will disappear with Alexandre, the studios will fall into disuse, films will be shot in the streets without stars or scripts. There will be no more films like Je Vous Presente Pamela.

– Alphonse (Jean-Pierre Léaud) in La Nuit Américaine, 1973 (2)

Amongst fans of the work of François Truffaut, there are distinct strands of opinion regarding the relative merit of his films. Of course, there are those, likely to be heavily influenced by the auteurist theory he himself propagated, who lap up every single one of the films Truffaut made between 1959 (or earlier, if we count his shorts) and his premature death in 1984, save perhaps for the odd uncharacteristic lapse. On the other hand, there is just as vociferous a group who hold that Truffaut unmistakably “a sauté le requin” – if the millennium-era pop cultural term “jumped the shark” has yet made its way into the French language. The specific point of decline varies from critic to critic, but the most frequently accepted turning point comes between Jules et Jim (1962), a universally regarded masterpiece of the nouvelle vague, and La Peau Douce (1964), which, despite its rigorous defence by Le Cain in #33 of Senses of Cinema, was a thoroughly disappointing film featuring a flimsy plot and none of the sparkle or innovation which had become the hallmark of Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard and their Cahiers du Cinéma cohorts.

While in agreement with the condemnation of La Peau Douce, a film whose most desirable fate will be, in my opinion, to be left adrift in the cosmos WeekEnd-style, and definitely leaning towards the latter pole of thought, I personally am not so unilateral when it comes to Truffaut’s later films. Certainly movies such as La Femme d’à Côté (1981), L’Homme qui Amait les Femmes (1977) and even the highly applauded Le Dernier Métro (1980) have little merit in terms of a mission to reinvent cinema into a guise more closely approaching that described in the quoted extract from a young François. But the director is somewhat (mind that there is a strong emphasis on the qualifier “somewhat”) redeemed by the Antoine Doinel series and, most significant, by the remarkable La Nuit Américaine (1973).

La Nuit Américaine fits squarely in that micro-genre of films which concern themselves with the process of making a film, a genre energised by Federico Fellini’s neurotic Otto e Mezzo (1962) and continued with Godard’s Le Mépris (1963), Paul Mazursky’s Alex in Wonderland (1970), Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories (1980) and, most recent, the Charles Kauffman-penned Adaptation (Spike Jonze, 2002). In fact, it is almost the case that every director whose work is heavily based on individual experience will inevitably yield such a piece. Truffaut himself speaks of this expectation when explaining his decision to make a film on the cinema: “Because it’s been in my mind for a long time. And I feel as if I’ve waited an enormous time to make it.” (3)

This is not to say that these films are repetitive or, a commonly heard refrain, that they are merely rehashing Fellini’s groundbreaker. In fact, a myriad of themes and issues have been explored in these works, from the angst of the director in front of a blank reel of film in Otto e Mezzo, to Godard’s dissection of the tension between being committed to one’s work and maintaining a loving relationship in Le Mépris (described by his cinematographer Raoul Coutard as a “love letter” to Godard’s by then estranged wife and leading lady, Anna Karina), to the tribulations suffered when a director/star of the prominence of Woody Allen becomes too closely associated with his work (Stardust Memories, 1980). The principal question haunting La Nuit Américaine is, on the other hand, whether films are superior to life. In the film itself, the character of the director, Ferrand, who, although played by Truffaut himself, should not automatically be identified with him, is unambiguous on the matter, expressing the view that,

Films are more harmonious than life, Alphonse, there are no bottlenecks in films, no dead-time, films keeps rolling forward, like trains, you understand, like trains in the night. People like you and me, you know, are only happy in our work, our work in the cinema. (4)

La Nuit Américaine

As a counter-argument, Truffaut has the character of Alphonse – played by Jean-Pierre Léaud, the one figure who, thanks to working as Truffaut’s surrogate in the Doinel series, has most become identified with the director in the eyes of the public (5) – contradict his on-screen director by saying, “I think Ferrand has it wrong. Life is more important than the cinema.” The fact that Truffaut feels the need to so directly play off the two characters who would most naturally be assumed to concur with his own feelings on the subject is a clear demonstration of the fact he was in two minds on the issue. This is a director for whom, since the age of about 12, the cinema has meant everything, and this is reflected in an interview he gave in 1971:

I used to see everything in life as competing with the cinema. That is to say, I detested the theatre because it was in competition with the cinema, but for the same reason I didn’t go in for winter sports, I don’t know how to ski, I don’t know how to swim, I can’t do anything. I will not go to look at a race or a match or whatever it might be, because I would have the impression of cheating on the cinema. I would not even think of going hunting or fishing and such. I’ve changed my ideas with time, I’m tolerant, I accept the fact that other people go fishing or hunting or skiing, but I myself do not take part, no. (6)

This quote comes from a man whose life was saved by the cinema, who went from a juvenile delinquent and, at one point military captive for attempted desertion, to a highly regarded film critic and director, all thanks to his love for film – and the not inconsiderable efforts of André Bazin. At the same time, Truffaut, by the time of making La Nuit Américaine, had reached a level of personal maturity whereby this all-consuming obsession for the cinema seems less and less integral to life. All the same, he can still maintain that asking whether films – or books – are superior to life is akin to “asking a child if he prefers his father or his mother”. (7)

Perhaps the real expression of Truffaut’s true thoughts, and hence his closest alter ego in the film, comes in the unlikely form of Joëlle (Nathalie Baye), the script girl, a character supposedly based on Suzanne Schiffman, who performed the aforementioned role on numerous films by Truffaut and Godard.

“In La Nuit Américaine I tried to have ten characters of equal importance: the prop man and script-girl count for as much as the stars” (8) insisted Truffaut, and this bears out well. The closest thing the film has to a femme fatale is Liliane, played by the anonymous Dani, who occupies the lowliest of roles in the film: assistant script trainee. But it is Joëlle who intrigues the most. Her single-minded dedication to the film-within-the-film above all else, as evidenced by her line, “I could drop a guy for a film, but I would never drop a film for a guy” (9), makes her the most laudable character. Her view of her work as art, and the lengths she goes to maintain the stability of the shoot, far beyond her call of duty as script girl, are further evidence of this – and unforgettable is the scene where Joëlle is sought for consultation on the script by the director Ferrand, whereby the script girl transcends her role and becomes something of a higher authority on the cinema. While possessing an extreme dedication to her work on the film, Joëlle nevertheless does not take the step of ascribing greater importance to film than to life itself.

In addition to this central theme, the nature of the film’s subject matter allows Truffaut to explore some other issues, all of which are obviously close to his heart.

In particular, Truffaut salaciously highlights the truly illusory character of films in a handful of key scenes. This often goes unappreciated by those outside of the film industry – after all, that candle that we see lighting up the actress’ face is surely a real candle, not a cleverly designed candlestick with hidden lightbulb which plugs into a nearby wall socket. The title itself underscores this: a “nuit Américaine” (or “Day for Night”, the title the film was released under in English-speaking countries) is the method of light filtering whereby a daytime exterior shot can be made to appear as if it is taking place at night, albeit not always convincingly. This technique is used in the last scene shot of the film-within-the-film, the climax scene, redone out of necessity due to the death of Alexandre (Jean-Pierre Aumont), the actor playing one of the inner film’s pivotal characters. Truffaut delights in uncovering the illusory nature of this shot – not only has day been turned into night, which before the advent of film could only be accomplished by a solar eclipse or an act of a vengeful god – but the seasons have been changed, with the entire set (itself of course, a fake town square) being enveloped in fake snow. To compound things further we have an entirely different person playing the character of the father, the deceased Alexandre’s former role.

The cinema has been turned into a lie of at least four-fold proportions (and that is not including such incidentals as the presence of a prop gun, etc.); ontology itself has been turned on its head. This all marks a deep departure from Truffaut’s mentor, André Bazin, who stressed the ontological relationship between the film and what is being filmed. Godard’s dictum stemming from such a perspective, “The cinema is truth 24 frames per second” (10), has been turned into its opposite: “The cinema is illusion, is lying 24 frames per second” – a volte-face that would leave Hegel speechless.

This tendency to expose the lies of the cinema, its “grand escroquerie”, is apparent throughout the film – indeed it is a hallmark right from the first scene. The viewer, presuming they are unacquainted with the film’s subject-matter, would be forgiven for believing it to be a “real” shot. Everything in this Parisian town square – the Métro station, the shops, cafés, pavements, roads, traffic and pedestrians – seems genuine. From out of the Métro ascends Alphonse and the audience is led through a dazzling travelling shot which follows him, leaves him to find another, significantly older man, Alexandre, only for Alphonse to return to the scene to administer a slap in the face to Alexandre. Beautiful, a sumptuous shot achieved in a single take, one of the highlights of Truffaut’s career – only for it to be interrupted by a shrill voice piercing the veil of illusion, yelling “Coupez!” (cut!), and we discover that what we are watching is “not a scene of real life, but a film shoot” (11) where all the people are merely actors – or, even worse, extras.

Then the camera pulls back, revealing … a camera, replete with operator, bulky crane, lighting and other paraphernalia. And as the camera pulls further and further away from the action, our process of distanciation (12) becomes complete when it is revealed that the entire town, which originally looked so solid and authentic, is nothing more than a flimsy, two-dimensional stage set, nestled inside what we find out to be the Studios de la Victorine in the environs of Nice. All the while the assistant director barks out at the cast, emphasising all the imperceptible imperfections with what we thought was a breathtaking shot: people were leaving the Métro station all at the same time, the bus was too slow, and so on and so forth.

The technically elaborate nature of the shoot as depicted in this first scene and throughout the film is itself a part of the third theme which preoccupies Truffaut in the film – that of the contemporary condition of filmmaking. The film-within-the-film itself, unimaginatively titled Je Vous Presente Pamela (Meet Pamela), is deliberately simplistic, a straight melodrama concerning a young bride who runs away with her father-in-law. Truffaut maintains this was done in order not to further confuse an audience effectively watching two films spliced into each other. On the other hand, however, he calls it an “example of a cinema of sentiments that I have defended and then practiced and that I will be one of the last to give up”. (13)

While in content, Je Vous Presente Pamela is a simple film, the shooting of it is complex enough to merit it worthy of the title of “Europudding” – those late 20th century big-budget European features which were to later experience an attempt to kill them off courtesy of the Dogme 95 movement. The crew is enormous, stars are pampered, camera cranes abound, everything is shot on studio sets, there is even a helicopter shot. The film depicted is essentially a Hollywood picture with a French accent, with all the potential logistical nightmares attendant with that style of shooting, which were so artfully avoided by the early nouvelle vague efforts. (14)

La Nuit Américaine

Indeed, Truffaut himself makes this point beautifully in the flashback scene showing a young Ferrand cunningly stealing publicity photos of Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941). This not only harks back to the films of the 1940s, which instilled in the young Truffaut a profound and life-long love affair with the cinema, but also to his earliest films. The flashback sequence, in its black-and-white splendour, could very well have been rescued from the cutting-room floor of Les Quatre Cent Coups (1959).

“With Je Vous Presente Pamela I show a more traditional way of filming, more luxurious than in my films, with the exception of Fahrenheit [451] which was made in English studios”, says Truffaut of the film. (15) This is undoubtedly true, but it is equally clear that the nature of Truffaut’s filmmaking experienced an evolution; from the threadbare efforts of his first endeavours, his films gradually became more and more expensive, with more and more bloated crews and studio expedience. There is much truth in the claim that Truffaut “made La Nuit Américaine like a documentary […] there is very little difference between the shooting I show and that of my films” – and this goes much further than merely the thinly-veiled playing of the “character” of Ferrand, of whom Truffaut admits, “you see me at work as if I had been filmed for a television programme”. (16)

This does not stop Truffaut from making an array of acerbic comments on the contemporary condition of cinema, both on a French and a global scale. Indeed, there is an extraordinary quantity of quotable quips in the film, going far beyond what one would normally expect from Truffaut, or any filmmaker, save possibly for Godard. Ferrand is, predictably, the main source of these citations. Early in the film he famously compares making a film to “a stagecoach journey into the far west. At the start you hope for a beautiful trip. But shortly you wonder if you will make it at all.” (17)

Ferrand continues in this vain, either in voice-over or in diegetic speech, throughout the film. In a world where “The Godfather is everywhere. Apparently it’s the only film doing business” (18) – a preceptive characterisation of the increasing blockbusterisation of global cinema in the 30 years since the making of La Nuit Américaine. Ferrand nevertheless maintains that, “You can make a movie out of anything now. You can make a film about Kissinger, about Mission Successful or a heart transplant, or a jeweller who tries to kill his wife with a knife.” (19)

Ferrand is joined in this musing by a host of other characters: from Bertrand (Jean Champion), Je Vous Presente Pamela‘s avuncular producer, who declaims, “In order to make money nowadays you have to be in real estate, not film. If I go on making pictures it’s because I like making pictures” (20), to a German interloper replete with comely lasses straight out of a Bavarian pornographic movie asking Ferrand, “Why don’t you make an erotic film?” (21) Even the studio’s cleaning lady barks out a hostile missive to the surrounding film crew: “Filthy cinema – you’re a plague on the world! … You have no morals, everyone just sleeps with everyone.” (22)

Finally, Alphonse pronounces his prognostication, reproduced at the beginning of this article. Despite its unerring similarity to the writings of the young Truffaut, the viewpoint it expressed was definitely not shared by the contemporaneous Truffaut, who had by then disowned much of his youthful criticism, particularly the type of bombastic proclamation such as that also reproduced at the head of the article. This cannot, however, be merely ascribed to Truffaut’s own conservative evolution, for the prospect of such a break as outlined by Alphonse – that is, a similar one to that which occurred with the release of Les Quatre Cent Coups and A Bout de Souffle (Godard, 1959) – was, at the time of the film under consideration, all but extinguished, in France at least, if not globally. The flowering of groundbreaking cinema in the 1960s was by this point in the process of drying up in a prelude to the severe aridity of the 1980s. Now, however, in the middle of the first decade of the 21st century, the clarion call for a cinema “shot in the streets without stars or scripts” appears startlingly applicable.

Perhaps where La Nuit Américaine can be seen to be most successful is precisely in its ambivalence: it is no more nor less than a truthful reflection of Truffaut’s own state of mind. In his quest to try to find the right balance between making a cinema that is both intellectually challenging and wildly popular, there exists the ever-present danger of slipping too far to one side or the other. Despite the insistence of many critics that Truffaut spent most of his career alternating between films that emphasised the one over the other, it is my opinion that by this stage of his life (from the late 1960s until his death) Truffaut had unmistakably taken the road of popular acceptance, especially in the seemingly unending number of literary Verfilmungen. Happily, and what possibly gives this particular film such a fond place in my mind, La Nuit Américaine was a genuine attempt to steer the ship somewhat in the opposite direction, without making too radical a departure from Truffaut’s general canon.

Ultimately, however, it is the film’s indecision, not really knowing whether it is Singin’ in the Rain (Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen, 1952) or Le Mépris, which prevents the film from becoming a cinematic great, on a par with its illustrious predecessors.

Endnotes

  1. Dominique Rabourdin (Ed.), Truffaut by Truffaut (New York, Abrams, 1987), p. 25.
  2. Truffaut, La Nuit Américaine (film). The translations used in this article are my own, gleaned from the published film script and the film in both its subtitled and dubbed versions.
  3. Truffaut by Truffaut, p. 136.
  4. La Nuit Américaine (film).
  5. This is duly helped by the extraordinary physical resemblance between the two. Despite their difference in age, this is similarity is so strong that I, in a momentary ebb of concentration, once mistook Truffaut for looking in the mirror during the film, when in fact it was Léaud standing in front of him.
  6. Truffaut by Truffaut, p. 25.
  7. François Truffaut, La Nuit Américaine – Journal de Tournage de Fahrenheit 451 (Paris: Cahiers du Cinéma-Editions de l’Etoile, 2000), p. 9.
  8. Truffaut by Truffaut, p. 137.
  9. La Nuit Américaine (film).
  10. Jean-Luc Godard, Le Petit Soldat (film).
  11. La Nuit Américaine, p. 21.
  12. One would call it Brechtian, if Truffaut’s work were not so implacably opposed to Brechtian influences in the cinema, such as that seen in the films of Jean-Marie Straub and Danielle Huillet, post-nouvelle vague Godard and others.
  13. Truffaut by Truffaut, p. 137.
  14. An anecdote recounted in the audio commentary of the DVD edition of Jules et Jim has American producers questioning Truffaut on how he managed to make the fog look so real, to which he replied by saying he filmed a real fog. It is safe to say that in Je Vous Presente Pamela, if required, a fake fog would almost certainly be used.
  15. Truffaut by Truffaut, p. 137.
  16. Ibid.
  17. La Nuit Américaine (film).
  18. Ibid.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Ibid.
  22. Ibid.

About The Author

Daniel Fairfax is assistant professor in Film Studies at the Goethe Universität-Frankfurt, and an editor of Senses of Cinema.