François Truffaut’s Day for Night (1973) is not only a great movie about movies, but it’s fascinating as an example of how international cinema truly is. By this I mean that while we think of foreign film as a separate world, Day for Night is clearly the kind of movie that could only have been made during that era from about 1965 through 1975, and is very much a part of the explosion of art-house fare as mainstream film that existed during that time. While there have been several noteworthy films about filmmaking, Day for Night may be the best one about making a specific film, and the best at capturing the madness of the process that director Richard Lester once likened to “having a hysterical pregnancy.” It’s also one of the most movie-savvy, and it expects the viewer to be, as well (it’s brought up, but never explained that Italian films were made in non-soundproofed studios and the dialogue recorded later).
The film follows the travails of a filmmaker (played by Truffaut) trying to get a film called Meet Pamela made. In common with most movies about movies, the film being made is one that you have trouble imagining anyone actually wanting to make or see, which may be part of the joke, but Meet Pamela works beautifully for Truffaut’s purposes because it affords endless opportunities for exploring how movie magic is created. This is actually a precarious thing, because in lesser hands and with a less deft touch, the film would be self-defeating, destroying the very magic it means to celebrate. Truffaut, however, reveals just enough without revealing too much, and he does so with a purpose—that purpose being to make you marvel all the more at the true magic of how all this can ever result in a coherent, let alone great film. And yet it does. That’s the beauty of Day for Night, and the secret of its own potent magic.