Mississippi Mermaid (1969) / Thriller-Romance
MPAA Rated: PG for nudity and some violence (would be PG-13 today)
Running time: 123 min.
Cast: Jean-Paul Belmondo, Catherine Deneuve, Nelly Borgeuad, Martine Ferriere, Marcel Berbert, Yves Drouhet, Michel Bouquet, Roland Theriot
Director: Francois Truffaut
Screenplay: Francois Truffaut (based on the novel by Cornell Woolrich)
As with Truffaut's earlier The Bride Wore Black, Mississippi Mermaid is based on a story by Cornell Woolrich (using the pen name 'William Irish'), entitled "Waltz into Darkness". The film follows a wealthy French bachelor named Louis Mahe (Belmondo, Breathless), who inherited a successful tobacco plantation and factory on the island of Reunion, in the Indian Ocean off of the southeast coast of Africa. Lonely, Louis has been corresponding through a woman he has placed in a newspaper personal ad named Julie Roussel (Deneuve, 8 Women), and the two have hit it off to the point where she has agreed to relocate to Reunion and marry him. Julie arrives, but not the Julie he was expecting from her photographs, as she claims to be shy to the mail-order bride notion and initially sent pictures of her sister. However, Louis is smitten by her fair hair and striking appearance, and will marry her nonetheless. After their marriage, they share everything, including bank accounts, and that's just when the trouble begins for Louis.
Considered Truffaut's (Antoine and Colette, The 400 Blows) biggest commercial failure at the time of its release, Mississippi Mermaid is one of his films that has been reappraised over time to become something of a minor classic. At its core, it is a thriller, but a loose-hanging one, mixing Hitchcockian plot elements (Marnie especially, though elements of Vertigo and Suspicion are in the mix) with the more open-ended and contemplative style of Jean Renoir (to whom the film gives a dedication), two of Truffaut's biggest influences in film. It makes for a bit of a split in terms of just how to classify the film -- as a thriller, romance, mystery, or drama -- but that's also an aspect that makes this complex film so fascinating.
The film starts simply, with a businessman's quest for love, and his delight, after some initial confusion, that the woman he is to marry is a world-class patrician beauty -- her spellbinding visage worthy putting as the face of his popular cigarette line. Love is blind, as they say, as it begins to become apparent that the woman he has married is not the woman he has been corresponding with, and Louis must determine if that's something he can live with, or if there's more at play. And if this isn't her, then what happened to the real Julie? The romance turns to mystery, and once the mystery is solved, the film goes into a traditional thriller mode, as detectives enter the mix. Even when the thrills comes to their conclusion, Truffaut still isn't done with the story. He pushes further beyond the boundaries to an exploration of love to something deeper, including the acceptance of one's own misery in order to facilitate the happiness of another. But perhaps the more realistic lesson to be learned is that some men will do anything to hold on to a woman who looks like Catherine Deneuve.
Mississippi Mermaid isn't about a mermaid at all, though one might read into the significance that Louis' wife is both a woman and a fish that he continues to try to catch. Some might have rightfully said that "Siren", a creature who could lure men to their doom, might be a better reference, which is more evident in the original French title, "La Sirene du Mississippi". Belmondo and Deneuve are quite fetching together, even though he plays more submissive in his aching for love than is customary for the macho actor, and she is more icily conniving, though in an occasionally sympathetic manner. The 'Mississippi' is a little more obvious, as it happens to be the name of the ocean liner Julie traveled on, but it was also a remnant from Woolrich's novel, which had been set in the 19th Century American Southern city of New Orleans, on the Mississippi River.
Truffaut's film, despite its initial reputation is, like Hitchcock's similar Marnie, one that has shot up in terms of respectability by film critics and Truffaut fans alike, especially as the original French film, which runs thirteen minutes longer than the cut originally released in the US, has become the norm on video and television screenings. While the inconsistency in its tone and lack of adherence to set genre may be unsettling for some viewers, especially those who come into the film with a preconception of the kind of movie it is supposed to be, for those who are open to going wherever Truffaut thinks the film should go, it's a complex and rewarding noirish drama worth multiple viewings to appreciate. That it's considered one of his lesser works is testament to Truffaut's talent as a filmmaker.
-- Remade in 2001 as Original Sin.
©2013 Vince Leo