I struggled to come up with a better name than “Hot PoMo Mess,” I really did. But I can’t seem to come up with anything pithier. How else can I describe it? In 18 short, pretentious words, it’s a film that through excess and self-reference subverts its own narrative, thereby deconstructing the cinematic form. Essentially, they’re films that never let you forget you’re watching a film; rather than being an immersive experience, they’re an experience of heightened awareness of the film’s techniques. I’ll argue that this is intentional in the films below, as opposed to films with an accidental boom in the shot, or the production values of pretty much any pre-2005 Doctor Who. Probably some examples will help.
Each one of these contains spoilers, unavoidably, since deconstructing a deconstruction is pretty much impossible to do without specifics. So bookmark this page and watch the movie first, that’s my best advice, but if you’re the headstrong type, or the type who likes to know what you’re going to see before it happens, by all means, read on.
Donc, sans plus tarder, je vous présente:
La Nuit Americaine
“Postmodernism,” the word, has been around for a while, and over time has been applied so broadly that it has almost ceased to hold any meaning at all. Dozens of wicked smart people have spent thousands of words trying to define it, so it would be an act of supreme hubris for me to attempt to do better now. Wish me luck!
Postmodern media has a certain obsession with authenticity; at the same time, it considers all things media-related to be artificial. Since everything is artificial, all viewpoints are equally valid, whether they’re the viewpoints of the author, director, audience, or critic. Postmodernism incorporates an acknowledgment of the audience’s awareness of this artifice into the text. Speaking to this awareness, whether it’s by dropping inside references for the fanboys, or breaking the fourth wall to address the audience directly, is fair game, since the audience’s participation is as valid as the authors’.
Over time, and after enough winking at the audience, a sense of ironic detachment started to seep into postmodern media, and postmodern art became nihilistic, defeatist even, with an “it’s all been done” attitude that left writers with nothing left to do but go on repurposing old bits of text, sampling and juxtaposing them ad nauseum — but in the beginning, postmodern film was vibrant with intellectualism. If self-awareness led to modernism, awareness of our awareness led to postmodernism, and what could be more fun than sharing the knowledge that we know you know we know you know?
The directors of the New Wave were the first to bring this postmodern approach to cinema. Films like Bergman’s Persona in 1966, with its explicit reference to its own celluloid, demanded viewers recognize that the story they were being told was just a story, a fabrication, in a way that had never been explored before. Less than a month after Persona opened in theatres, François Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 included a scene that hints at the games he was going to play with his audience a few years later in La Nuit Americaine. The clip of this scene won’t let me embed it, but you can view it here (like all the others linked below, the clip is cued). Poor, stupid Linda …. Is it possible to watch this scene without considering the relationship between the show and the viewer? How are we any different?
There are many other New Wave films that incorporate this kind of playful nudging of the audience, like Godard’s Made In USA (1966), to name just one example. Made In USA is full of random asides and oddities that never quite add up to a whole. For instance, Marianne Faithfull sings As Tears Go By, a song by Mick Jagger, who was her well-publicized boyfriend at the time — our knowledge of this relationship outside the movie means we bring information to the scene that the director didn’t provide, contextualizing what should be a random woman as a conscious casting choice. Or this scene, with — yes — a script being written to accompany the action, a backdrop of billboards featuring movie starlets, a soundtrack that keeps missing its cue, and a comically odd entrance by a cowboy.
While these fillips are scattered willy-nilly in the early-postmodern films of the late ’60s, by the time Truffaut got around to La Nuit Americaine in ’73, it was as if the idea underlying each of these pranks had coalesced into a single guiding theme.
La Nuit Americaine is also known as Day For Night; both refer to the cinematic practice of putting a dark blue membrane over the lens so scenes shot in daylight look like night. The reference to the artifice of filmmaking is right there in the title. The film itself is about the making of another, fictional film, “Je Vous Présente Pamela,” a straightforward melodrama. La Nuit Americaine is not the first film about filmmaking (and definitely not the last), but it is the first to use a series of little, quirky effects to present this story, the story of a movie being made, not just as a story, but also as a movie. It’s impossible to watch La Nuit Americaine, with Truffaut playing a movie director, and not think about the making of not only “Je Vous Présente Pamela” but also of La Nuit Americaine. There are no asides to the camera, per se, to smash through the fourth wall. Instead, Truffaut merely chips away at the wall, affecting the experience of watching the film on an almost subconscious level.
To give just a handful of examples: in an early scene set in a public square, a bus drives in front of the camera, and the reflection of the camera mount and operator are clearly visible in the bus’s window — but only for a single frame. It could be the crane being used to shoot “Je Vous Présente Pamela,” but that pretext aside, it is the camera actually used to film the scene.
Narration happens in a few instances, where Truffaut addresses the audience directly, but in one case, and only one, a voiceover lets us hear what one of the actors is thinking. The voiceover is jarring, but not so jarring that most viewers even notice it. Suddenly the actor is not just an actor in “Je Vous Présente,” she’s an actor in La Nuit Americaine as well.
In an emotional scene set during the filming of “Je Vous Présente,” one of the actors grabs the boom mike — the mike used to record “Je Vous Présente” within the context of the film — and speaking directly into it, her voice subtly reverberates. The boom mike — “Je Vous Présente’s”s mike — is also our mike! The “natural” sound on-set is suddenly made artificial again, and when the mike recording the sounds we’re hearing is caught on camera, we’re oblivious to it at first, and when it finally becomes clear what we’re seeing, the frame for the entire scene shifts. There’s a parallel to the scene’s content, as well; the actor is filming a dramatic scene, but one that we are not invested in (since we’re not watching “Je Vous Présente”); the filming, however, also unreels into an emotional scene for the people filming “Je Vous Présente,” which constitutes the real drama for the audience of La Nuit Americaine. The drama for us is one step removed from the drama of the film-within-a-film; the narrative exists outside of the smaller frame of “Je Vous Présente” and inside the frame of La Nuit Americaine, but in this single act the audience pops out of the frame of La Nuit Americaine and into the theatre or living room where they sit watching the film.
One scene revolves entirely around the performance of a cat. A character explains how a cat has been starved to ensure it will drink milk on cue, but the actor cat fails miserably. A random barn cat is enlisted instead, and it gives an Oscar-worthy performance. Getting the shot perfect is at stake, and a lot of suspense is built in this extended sequence. When “cut” is called after the new cat finally performs, the relief is palpable. But it also raises the question: how did Truffaut get the performance? Working with animals is notoriously difficult, and the scene plays on the fact that you essentially can’t control an animal. And yet both cats deliver exactly what the script calls for, in a scene in which there’s a scene in which animal performance is key. The question of how Truffaut got the cats to perform — not just as cats, but as performing cats playing cats in a movie — adds another layer of awareness to the scene.
At the end of the film, an actor, initially addressing an on-screen camera, thanks the audience for watching the film (“Je Vous Présente”). But midway through, he turns to face the camera — the camera — and addresses us, the actual audience. It is the only direct instance of breaking the fourth wall, and even then, is couched in the context of talking about the film-within-a-film. The transition from addressing the on-screen camera to addressing the actual audience is ambiguous enough that it once again almost slips under the radar. Almost.
Throughout the film, the artifice that goes into filmmaking is emphasized — the multiple takes, the fake snow, the fake rain, the gun that fires blanks, and so on and so on. As these examples of filmmaking technique accumulate, they also create a catalogue of the effects the film uses on the viewer, not the film-within-a-film but the film-about-a-film. This is what La Nuit Americaine is ultimately about; not the making of a film, but a film being a film, and of gently making the audience aware that they’re watching a film. But while this could have been an airless exercise in audience manipulation, Truffaut went a different way. Filmmaking was a joy for him, and the act of making “Je Vous Présente” is infused with joy, and presumably the making of La Nuit Americaine was infused with joy. The film is artful without pretense, and Truffaut’s intention was not to fool the viewer, but to let the audience see that it’s being fooled, and how much enjoyment everyone gets from the experience.