May 5, 2017
It comes as no surprise that François Truffaut’s Mississippi Mermaid (1969) is not so much a singular Truffaut work as it is an homage to the thrillers of the Hollywood Golden Age. The film was produced shortly after the French filmmaker conducted a series of interviews with Alfred Hitchcock in 1967, with discussions about every film in the latter’s oeuvre up for grabs. Preceded by 1968’s The Bride Wore Black, a Jeanne Moreau vehicle which wore the “deadly is the female” position like a yellow badge, Truffaut clearly let his conversations with the master of suspense make their way into his creative process.
But while The Bride Wore Black was tight and efficient – if lacking in the humor which might have made it a more widely revered as a classic – Mississippi Mermaid frequently verges on the tedious, sometimes kissed by fully formed intrigue and other times hopelessly languid for a thriller trying to be something like a down-to-earth Spellbound (1945).
It stars the engaging Jean-Paul Belmondo as Louis Mahé, a prosperous tobacco plantation owner wallowing in lonely bachelorhood in his secluded island home. Having become fed up with being perpetually single just as the film opens, he has put out a newspaper ad calling for a woman who’d perhaps be interested in marrying him. Being young, wealthy, and attractive, we find it hard to believe that Mahé has struggled to stumble on a femme who might take to his charms. But one can suppose that he’s looking for someone who will love him for who he really is – he makes no mention of his affluence in his letters, for instance.
After some time, Mahé grabs the attention of Julie Roussel, an average-looking, 20-ish Frenchwoman. A couple postal exchanges later and the two decide to marry before ever meeting face to face. Roussel will come via cruise ship and from then on will she and Mahé hopefully be a match made in heaven.
Upon arrival, though, Mahé notices that the Roussel who introduces herself (Catherine Deneuve) is not the woman in the photographs sent. She’s beautiful, for starters, and eventually comes to prove that she cannot remember anything said in the letters. Most would be suspicious that this isn’t the real Roussel at all, but an imposter. Because she’s so beguiling and because she has enough of a personality to showcase herself as a keeper, however, Mahé doesn’t hesitate to marry the woman, shrugging off the reservations of those he’s closest to.
But as it usually happens when you act on your heart’s desires, completely ignoring the misgivings of your mind, all goes to hell almost immediately after Mahé and Roussel say “I do.” Not long after the wedding, Roussel disappears, with nearly 28 million of her husband’s hard-earned francs in pocket.
And so begins the spotlighting of a love/hate relationship for the ages – Mahé and Roussel do ultimately end up together, but that fate is preceded by a great deal of instability, colored by Roussel’s criminal past, Mahé’s unwillingness to let his wife’s untrustworthiness get to him, and an overarchingly jagged relationship which drifts between lovey-dovey adoration and hardened hate. By its end, Mahé has killed for his love and Roussel has attempted to poison a man even after redeeming herself. If this connection isn’t the definition of toxic then I’m a blue dove with one eye.
The film would fly if Truffaut made it with the seriousness of Strangers on a Train (1951) and the whispering enigmas of Notorious (1946). But he misguidedly tries to sell Mississippi Mermaid as a severely demented romantic drama, with the leading characters almost desperate to prove that they aren’t and never will be made for each other. The atmosphere’s sweeping and wistful when it should be slick and dangerous; the structure is contemplative and dreamy when it should be terse and nightmarish. It’s a disappointing case of a great film trapped inside a much too self-conscious one.
Fortunately, Deneuve and Belmondo look fantastic together, generating heat without so much as moving a muscle. I just wish Mississippi Mermaid were less cerebrally infatuated and more straightforwardly thrilling. It’s too intellectually motivated for a movie that should be nothing more than intelligent popcorn triviality. C+