Director Francois Truffaut will always be associated with iconic works like The 400 Blows (1959) and Jules and Jim (1962). And yet the man directed 27 films outside of those two. Twilight Time recently released one underseen work in Truffaut’s canon, 1969’s Mississippi Mermaid. (For the record, I know I’m going to misspell Mississippi at some point in this review.) Based off a work by Cornel Woolrich, the “Edgar Allan Poe of noir,” Mississippi Mermaid takes the noir conventions and gives dusts them with several themes Truffaut worked with previously regarding relationships and the ambiguity and often poor decision making stemming from them.
Louis Mahe (Jean-Paul Belmondo) is awaiting the arrival of his bride, a woman he’s only spoken to via letters. When Julie Roussel (Catherine Deneuve) arrives, she doesn’t look like the picture Louis has. Regardless, Louis and Julie get married. But when Julie runs off with Louis’ money, and the real Julie’s sister comes looking for her, Louis must find and confront the woman he’s married.
Any good noir fan, or anyone with common sense really, waits for the fall-out of Louis’ relationship the minute it’s revealed the couple have never met in person. If Hollywood has taught us anything it’s that meeting your bride on the day of the nuptials never turns out well! With this information the audience uses what they know to formulate an ending. Truffaut stays one step ahead of the audience, well aware of their expectations and changing things accordingly. Just as Louis presumes he’s found his wife getting off the boat, until to have her turn away, we’re wondering who this girl is and being rebuffed. In fact, Truffaut intentionally shows us the real Julie in the first minute. The audience, knowing of Deneuve’s starring role, immediately knows to distrust her or see the photo as a red herring. There are a few additional red herrings in the first hour, particularly the camera zooming in on Julie’s trunk. Everyone who’s anyone is waiting for a body to be discovered!
Even Louis himself opens himself up to being fooled, throwing aside the piece of string Julie’s used to measure her ring finger because “it’s the ring that matters.” For him, it is the marriage itself that’s important, not the bride rocking the ring. And, honestly, does it really matter when a beauty like Catherine Deneuve is coming to marry you? The arrival of our leading lady knocks Louis off his guard, and her beauty and ethereal quality immediately has the audience believing in her innocence. If this was 1940s film noir you could easily see Gene Tierney playing Julie.
There’s no way a woman who looks like the perfect embodiment of a summer day could be bad. Our expectations and perceptions of good and evil are immediately tested. “Julie” comes up with a litany of reasons to explain away why she doesn’t look like the picture, her personality shifts (she suddenly likes coffee and hates her canary, two items she revealed to Louis in letters), and the ring not fitting. We, Louis included, can temporarily by into them. On the surface, they sound somewhat logical. Are they logical because Deneuve is beautiful? Hasn’t done anything malicious to our eyes? Or are we just conditioned by cinema to expect the worst?
All of this takes place on an exotic island, furthering the languid nature of the environment. It’s as if Louis is suffering from heat stroke as much as love for how he takes to married life with Julie. This honeymoon phase leaves the audience waiting for the eventual fall-out. I mean, there has to be right? Of course there is, and with the revelation that Julie’s run off with Louis’ money, the film switches into straight mystery for about half an hour before veering into a domestic drama. Yes, once Julie is confronted, revealing herself as Marion Vergano, the film segues into exploring the various deceptions in relationships – the French part of the film.
As with any marriage, both characters bring baggage to the martial bed, but since we already know of Marion’s deception, and Louis takes Marion back (going so far as to murder for her), he becomes as complicit in the deception as her. He once was willing to be fooled and now participates in it. By the end, the two have been on a merry-go-round of makeups and breakups that would make any sane person shake their head and say, “Break up already!” Truffaut says that that the nature of love drives us irrationally, and that all we can do is enter the storm and pray for the best.
Deneuve and Belmondo are solid, acting out a relationship that feels all too real despite the noir trappings. Twilight Time’s new Blu-ray includes the requisite isolated score, a great audio commentary, and the film’s trailer. Francophiles and noir fanatics should consider picking up a copy!
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