Where does make- believe end and reality begin? On the big screen, this often finite line has been examined by a number of great directors: Godard, Fellini, Lynch, Ferrarra, Billy Wilder and François Truffaut are just a few of the famous names to lengthen the boundaries of the film-within-a-film sub-genre. Truffaut's contribution won 'Best Foreign Film' at the Academy Awards, just one decade before his death.
La Nuit americaine (American Night) refers to the process of shooting a night scene in daylight by means of a special filter, and is a particularly apt title for the two films on offer which often merge into a single viewing experience.
Truffaut himself takes the role of Ferrand, a dedicated movie director who must harness the talents of cast and crew to negotiate the successful shoot of his latest project, "Meet Pamela". His screenplay concerns a recently married woman who falls in love with her father-in-law, during a visit instigated by her husband. Back in the 'real world', various members of the entourage also succumb to temptation and it's a job in itself to keep pace with who's sleeping with whom, not to mention the trials, tribulations and internal politics associated with the world of high profile cinema. For all that, La Nuit americaine is an extremely likeable film, populated by a host of disperate spirits who all seem to draw inspiration from Ferrand's passionate affair with his art: Jean-Pierre Leaud (star of Truffaut's five Antoine Doinel films) who keeps script girl Lilane (Dani) on the boil, before falling for American actress Julie Baker ("I remember her in that movie with the car chase".), played by the radiant Jacqueline Bisset. Baker arrives on the set some 39 minutes in, with baggage that includes a recent nervous breakdown; a state of affairs that provides Ferrand with another insurance headache to go with his 35 day completion deadline. While Ferrand attempts to get his vision in the can, helped by loyal continuity assistant Joelle (Nathalie Baye in her feature debut), we are privy to an ageing lead coming to terms with being gay (Aumont); an actress (Stewart) whose pregancy throws an unexpected spanner in the works; a cat that's either unable or unwilling to act and, best of all, Valentina Cortese as Severine ("She never comes to rushes."), a loveable, lively piece of work whose love of alcohol matches her directors' passion for film. While Ferrand's direction of Baker (the candle scene) marks the best scene in the film, Cortese figures in the funniest, fluffing lines, continuously opening the wrong door for her maids exit and generally breaking every rule in the book before opting for some extremely radical improvisation ("I'll use numbers. The way I do with Fellini.") An absolute joy to witness, as indeed is the rest of this film. Admirers of Truffaut were no doubt delighted by the opportunity to watch him work and showcase a few tricks of the trade, with even the stop-start rhythm of the shoot commanding our most earnest attention. Complimented by a beautiful Georges Delerue score ( think Greenaway and Nyman), La Nuit americaine may not be Truffaut's best film but it's certainly his most entertaining.
Warner Bros. DVD is far and away the best home video version of this film, exhibiting strong, stable colours. The softness of image is still present, as with all other versions, but this is doubtless due to the film stock and should not be seen as a failing of the transfer. While it would have been nice to have the option of an audio commentary (Bisset in tandem with film critic Annette Insdorf would have been a good choice), the inclusion of several featurettes does help to soften the blow. Indeed, the 9 minute interview with Bisset is alone worth the admission price. It's long been one of life's mysteries as to why Bisset failed to reach the very top of her profession. She's certainly one of the most beautiful women ever to grace the screen, and her acting ability is beyond reproach. Perhaps it was a combination of a life punctuated by the failing health of loved ones (never was there a more devoted daughter) and so often being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Her performance here suggests she was more at ease in quality European productions than the lightweight fare which traded on her looks and little else: shame on all those gutless filmmakers who never found the time to commission the type of roles that would have made her star burn even brighter. Still, it's nice to listen to the obvious affection she still feels for this film and rather humbling to hear her voice concern regarding the merits of her beautiful French accent; a needless worry that's shared in the film by Julie Baker.
The rest of the featurettes do veer towards 'puff piece' territory, but are still worth checking out. We get to listen to Annette Insdorf, Todd McCarthy and Bob Balaban hold forth on the magic of Truffaut, while lamenting the fact that he died at an absurdly young age, and there's a most welcome appearance from Brian De Palma.
Warner Bros. also include an English language trailer; an interesting choice which serves to heighten our appreciation of the original French audio track.