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Truffaut's 'Day for Night' Still Enchants


"Day for Night," Francois Truffaut's heartfelt homage to the joy and pain of making movies, is just as bracing yet touching as it was when it was first released 25 years ago. If anything, it has gained resonance because we are even further removed from the classic studio production to which Truffaut was bidding farewell--and also because it inevitably reminds us of the loss movie-lovers the world suffered when Truffaut died at 52 in 1984.

Dedicated to Lillian and Dorothy Gish, "Day for Night" was shot at the venerable Victorine Studios in Nice, where American pioneer director Rex Ingram produced films for MGM in the late '20s. Truffaut cast himself as Ferrand, who is directing the kind of picture he himself never made. It's an archetypal French film called "Meet Pamela," in which Jean-Pierre Leaud's Alphonse has been cast as a young man who brings home his English bride, Julie Baker, played by Jacqueline Bisset, to meet his parents, Alexandre and Severine (Jean-Pierre Aumont and Valentina Cortese). The beautiful bride and her dashing father-in-law fall in love, and their affair ends badly, de rigueur for a traditional French romantic melodrama.

"Meet Pamela's" stars carry a lot of off-camera emotional baggage. Baker, a top Hollywood star, has so recently recovered from a nervous breakdown she cannot be insured. Alphonse, who is as immature as he is talented, has fallen hard for a sultry type (Dani) that he managed to get hired as a script girl. Severine is having trouble with her lines, but as only a few know--and which she never discusses--not because she's gulping Champagne between takes but because her son could die at any moment from leukemia. Alexandre, still the image of the matinee idol in middle age--and once the lover of Severine in a tempestuous affair during the Hollywood years of their careers--is in fact gay. Add in the usual quota of snafus that go with any film in production, and the result is a constant state of upheaval.

Truffaut has much more on his mind and in his heart than the considerable jaunty humor that emerges from the alternating exhilarating and grueling process of making a movie. In a very real sense his film is a tribute to actors, because his stars-playing-stars bring absolute conviction not only to the varyingly troubled actors they play but also to the stock roles their characters are playing in "Meet Pamela." Severine may struggle with her lines but comes through in great style. Truffaut also has much affection for Ferrand's hard-working crew, headed by his highly focused assistant, played by Nathalie Baye, soon to emerge as a major French screen actress.

There are so many memorable moments in the deceptively blithe "Day for Night," such as when Ferrand tells Alphonse that they are both the kind of people who are only happy when they are making movies. You suspect that this was also true for Truffaut and for Leaud, his screen alter ego in so many films. But it's Severine who has the last word on making movies, observing that just when you have the experience within your grasp it's all over. Gone, just like that.

* MPAA rating: PG. Times guidelines: some adult situations, discreetly presented.

'Day for Night'

(La Nuit Americaine)

Jacqueline Bisset: Julie Baker

Jean-Pierre Leaud: Alphonse

Valentina Cortese: Severine

Jean-Pierre Aumont: Alexandre

Francois Truffaut: Ferrand

A Warner Bros. presentation of an Italo-French co-production: Le Films du Carosse and P.E.C.F. (Paris)/P.I.C. (Rome). Director Francois Truffaut. Executive producer Marcel Berbert. Screenplay by Truffaut, Jean-Louis Richard, Suzanne Schiffman. Cinematographer Pierre-William Glenn. Editors Yann Dedet, Martine Barraque. Music Georges Delerue. Art director Damien Lanfranchi. In French, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes.

* Exclusively at the Royal, 11523 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 477-5581.

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