Francois Truffaut’s “La Nuit Americaine” presents a rather light-hearted representation of what it takes to make a film. Many of the difficulties associated with making a film to come light as the director finds himself on an impossibly tight schedule and several of the actors suffer from debilitating off-set issues. Though we have not finished the film, it is already clear that the production of “Pamela” (the film within the film) will not end without another series of stressful events.
Truffaut makes an effort to call attention to cinema’s inaccurate depictions of both the reality of the world itself and the truth of what went into making the ideal picture that millions view on screen. Scenes of “Pamela” are shot over and over and over again with mounting frustration after every attempt and a mental breakdown from one of the leading actresses (Severine) to cap it all off. Seemingly unimportant logistics are micromanaged to a fault, and poorly written contract-clauses force Ferrand to make unsettling decisions about his cast. To paraphrase, Ferrand notes that he originally intended to make a great movie, and now he just hopes to be able to finish it, after being faced with a 7 week ultimatum. I found all of this to be extremely enlightening, as I never quite conceptualized exactly how difficult and frustrating it is to make all of this happen. As Orson Welles so elegantly put it, “a writer needs a pen, an artist needs a brush, but a filmmaker needs an army.” Ferrand struggles to keep his army together, finding himself faced with little tiny problems all the way down to a kitten that won’t drink the milk he puts out for it. It doesn’t ever seem like anything will be easy, and the whole thing is enough to make the whole operation seem like a complete drag. Upon viewing the preview of one of her films, one actress declares, “I did that? All I remember is the waiting.” I think that quote pretty effectively sums up the point that Truffaut wants to make about film-making – despite the glorification of the plot and the characters themselves, the input is far, far uglier than the output.
A further comment on cinema’s departure from reality is made as the stars of the film are all asked about the plot. The film is a tragedy by genre, and Alphonse, Alexandre and Julie all point to this fact with different interpretations of what that means. Regardless of what the actors and actresses say to this point, what comes through to the viewer is the fact that the storyline of the film within the film is quite linear – that is to say their lives are pre-destined to resolve in some thematic or predictable way based on the general requirements of a tragedy. In this sense the film has automatically distanced itself from reality, and Truffaut chooses to accentuate this by presenting a conversation between Ferrand and Alphonse in which the distraught actor is consoled about the departure of his girlfriend, whom he idealistically and selfishly presumed to be his fiancé. Unable to cope with this “real” life tragedy, Alphonse whines about the unexpected rupture of his relationship. Ferrand responds by telling him that “movies go on like trains in the night.” What he means by this is that in films, unlike in the real-world lives of the people who represent characters, the plot will simply move forward without any unintended hiccups. There is no room for a diversion from the path. It seems as though Alphonse pictured his romance with Lilliane to be as perfect and ideal as the instant and illicit love relationship between the characters that Julie and Alexandre play in “Pamela,” and could not come to terms with the fact that this just wasn’t meant to be. To make things worse, Julie ends up sleeping with Alphonse after an effort to explain to him that Lilliane would find herself alone and abandoned after a brief stint with her British lover, contributing further to the harsh and complicated emotions that Alphonse already felt. What a messy situation. I guess Truffaut is trying to hammer home the point that makers of films sometimes cannot escape the idealization of the world themselves. Alphonse’s life looks to be more of a roll of the dice than a straight path towards the eternal love he pictures in his mind.