François Truffaut – the man who loved actors

Film-makers usually come off badly when films get made about them. François Truffaut is the honourable exception

It speaks well of film-makers that movies about movies are usually black comedies. Our industry is so detestable – so filled with lies, thefts, backstabbing, blacklisting, drug dealing, and the occasional murder – that one would expect a tendency to cover things up. Instead, almost all the films I can think of which deal with the film-making process portray it in the grimmest possible light.

Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard (1950) is a classic instance: a dark comedy in which a failed screenwriter (William Holden) attempts to gain fame on the back of a faded silent-movie star (Gloria Swanson): she ends up mad, he, shot and drowned. Even the good-hearted comedy Singin' in the Rain (1952) conversely, depicts a hierarchical system dominated by the talentless, in which people who are actually good at something (in this case dancing) are ritually humiliated, while clinging to the loser's mantra: "dignity, always dignity".

The list of negative portrayals goes on and on. Robert Aldrich's The Big Knife from 1955 is a fine noir that pulls no punches: its protagonist, wonderfully played by Jack Palance, is a vain, tough-guy actor who has killed someone while drunk-driving. The studio steps in and covers things up, thereby locking Palance's character into a lifetime of meaningless macho roles. When he tries to rebel, and play a part he likes, a demonic studio boss (Rod Steiger) blackmails him back into the fold. Contempt (aka Le Mépris) from 1963 is, I think, Godard's best film: a merciless dissection of the kind of fools who attempt to "commercialise" Homer's Odyssey. Palance plays the villainous producer; Fritz Lang – as himself – is the hapless director. A highway cataclysm is the inevitable outcome.

Want more evidence of the film industry's moral vacuum? Day of the Locust (1975) may not be John Schlesinger's greatest picture, but it has two of his best-directed scenes, both Hollywood apocalypses. In the first, a soundstage set collapses, killing and maiming the actors and crew; in the second, an opening-night crowd goes zombie-mad, overturning cars and murdering the stars they've shown up to cheer. Richard Rush's The Stunt Man (1980) is a vision of the film director as Satan: Peter O'Toole, of course, is perfect in the role. Robert Altman's The Player (1992) is easily the best work of his later years - an anti-industry comedy involving sleaze, blackmail and the inevitable murder. Tom DiCillo's Living in Oblivion (1995) applies the same jaundiced gaze to low-budget feature film-making; there are no murders (less money is at stake) but the same procession of betrayals and cop-outs. The film's star turn is by James LeGros, as the manipulative actor Chad Palomino – a character possibly based on Brad Pitt, whom DiCillo had directed previously, in Johnny Suede.

Given this impressive level of consistency, is there any film that depicts the film-making process as a positive, uplifting thing? Yes! Step forward régisseur François Truffaut, with Day for Night (1973). The opening titles tell us where the director is coming from: his film is "dedicated to Dorothy and Lilian Gish". In other words, though he is a French film-maker, and his film is made in France, in French, it isn't about French films at all. The English-language title is meaningless whereas the French title says it all: La Nuit Américaine. The reference is to a way of shooting night-time scenes by daylight, by placing a blue filter over the lens and not pointing the camera towards the sky. The words "day for night" are just a practical expression of a pragmatic process: whereas "la nuit Américaine" is romantic, suggestive, allusive.

Truffaut's film works in this way. It opens on a busy street, full of cars and people. Cut! And all at once we realise we are on a movie set: a giant, exterior mock-up of Paris, complete with Métro station and 160 extras. Did the French really make films like this? I think not. Truffaut was – like Godard – one of the new wave. These guys, like the Italian neorealists and the American noir directors, made their films cheaply, on actual locations. They didn't build massive sets –they couldn't afford them. If they needed a street scene, they went out on the street and shot what they found there.

No matter. Truffaut is not concerned with reality, certainly not his reality, or his national culture. He is recounting the creation of illusions, and, it must be said, he does this well. In all the "movies about movies" I have seen, it is the only instance in which the film director is not a monster or a morally bankrupt fool. But, despite my wishy-washy moral misgivings, I must confess to enjoying Day for Night. For every stupid voiceover from the director ("Making a film is like a stagecoach journey into the far west …") there is a funny and ironic scene depicting the frailty of an actor.

Criminal no 1 in this writhing nest of thespians is Alphonse, played by Jean-Pierre Léaud. Alphonse combines the whininess of Palance in The Big Knife with the manipulative cruelty of LeGros in Living in Oblivion. Valentina Cortese is splendid as the grande dame of the stage, Severine, a drunk who cannot remember her lines nor keep from walking into cupboards. Such a character might be monstrous or ridiculous: instead Cortese and Truffaut join forces to make her simultaneously annoying and appealing. We may hate Alphonse because he is actually nasty, but we feel pity and sympathy for Severine.

Inevitably, all grinds to a halt when it's time for the animal scene: even the most precious, in-a-hurry thespians are forced to cool it while the crew move heaven and earth to make a kitten drink milk on camera. This is true. I've been there – ignoring Gary Oldman and a room full of highly strung professionals, trying to get a performance out of a cat.

So, if actors are disposable, replaceable commodities, vain, silly and mean, why do we get the feeling this director loves them so? Because he does. And to love actors, if you are a director, is The Only Thing That Matters, in the end.

A François Truffaut season runs until 28 March at the BFI Southbank, London SE1. Tel: 020 7928 3232


Alex Cox

The GuardianTramp

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