Tuesday, 13 May 2008

The Mississippi Mermaid (1969, France/Italy, Francois Truffaut)

'The Mississippi Mermaid' is an unconvincing attempt at marrying the styles and traditions of the two film makers most beloved of Truffaut's; Alfred Hitchcock and Jean Renoir, to whom the film is a tribute to. Made during his mid-period, considerably after the opening run of terrific films that included 'The 400 Blows', 'Shoot The Pianist' and 'Jules et Jim', the film has the feel of a director who has lost his way and his creativity. Despite being one of the most widely known and influential directors of the French New Wave, Truffaut has been accused by many of this and certainly by the mid 70s was stuck in a rut with the Antoine Doinel cycle, which he never seemed to escape from.

'The Mississippi Mermaid' is based on the Cornell Woolrich short story 'Waltz Into Darkness'. The Hitchcock association is enhanced by the fact that 'Rear Window' was written by Woolrich. The film obviously has noirish aspirations, which is contrasted by the bright colours and location shooting in Reunion, an French colonial island just off Madagascar in the Indian Ocean (amended from Woolrich's original American setting). A plantation owner, Louis Mahe (Jean Paul Belmondo) advertises for a mail order bride and the woman he's been courting and has offered to marry arrives on the boat which the film's title is named after. Julie Roussell (Catherine Deneuve) is a beautiful woman whom any man would fall in love with, but her story doesn't add up. She doesn't resemble the photo she sent (she says it was her sister), the ring doesn't fit (Julie tied string around her finger to indicate the size of the wedding ring) and she drinks coffee, when she originally stated in her letters that she only drank tea.

In spite of these lies which completely destroy her credibility, and it's surely clear that Louis is aware of these lies and accepts them, they marry. The marriage is of course a scam, as Julie clears his bank account and returns to France, pursued not only by Louis, but a private detective hired by Louis and the real Julie's sister. When they are reunited, she explains that her gangster love devised the scheme for her to impersonate Julie (hints of 'Vertigo' perhaps) but that he took the money. Given Marion (as her real name is) has lied before, why should we (and Louis) believe her? Whether he does or not, he's so hopelessly in love with her that he'll forgive anything and do anything for her, even commit murder.

Not only does the film hint at 'Vertigo', but also 'Marnie' perhaps; we have two emotionally damaged protagonists engaged in a perverse love affair that's dangerous to them and a female lead who changes identities. As a tribute to Hitchcock, it doesn't really work, lacking any depth or subtlety. The narrative itself is pretty flimsy and the motivations of Louis and Julie/Marion are too contrived. Where 'Vertigo' explored love as self-delusion and obsession convincingly and traumatically, this just seems like a poor tribute to that and seems completely half-hearted. The other later period Truffaut films I've seen; 'Two English Girls', 'The Woman Next Door' and 'Finally Sunday' were also quite frustrating. They were clearly well made and competent films by a gifted film maker but lacked spark and finesse, and were obviously flawed. The same accusation could easily be levelled at 'The Mississippi Mermaid'. 2.5/5

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