Thursday, September 20, 2012

Director Spotlight #10.8: Francois Truffaut's Mississippi Mermaid

Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. September’s director is consummate cinephile Francois Truffaut.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the movie in question.

Grade: 86 (A-)

Being a big Alfred Hitchcock fan, it isn’t surprising that Francois Truffaut tried his hand at a Hitchcockian thriller more than a couple of times. His most overtly Hitchcockian film, The Bride Wore Black, failed because it was too much Hitchcock and not enough of Truffaut’s own personality. Better is Mississippi Mermaid, a 1969 film that mixed Truffaut influences like Hitchcock, Nicholas Ray, and Jean Renoir (to whom the film is dedicated), all filtered through the unique personality of Francois Truffaut.

Louis Mahe (Jean-Paul Belmondo of Breathless fame) owns a cigarette factory on the French-colonized island Reunion. Mahe does not want to date, and he agrees to marry mail-order bride Julie Roussel (Catharine Deneuve). When Julie arrives, she looks nothing like her picture, but explains it away as being nervous and sending her sister’s picture instead. Louis and Julie are married and fall deeply in love, but Julie is clearly hiding something. When she makes off with Louis’s money, Julie’s sister arrives, only to claim that the woman Louis married was not Julie.

Truffaut had mixed melodrama and Hitchcockian suspense before in another strong outing, The Soft Skin, but he’s on even surer footing here. Rejuvenated after the release of Stolen Kisses, Truffaut mixes suspense, melodrama, and some of his French New Wave tricks (jump cuts aplenty here) to keep us off guard and in a playful mood. From the beginning, it’s pretty clear that Julie isn’t who she seems, but Truffaut trusts the intelligence of his audience. He’s making a movie for movie-lovers, and the hints he throws along the way- throwbacks to Hitchcock’s Rope, The Vanishing Lady, Vertigo, and Psycho- give the viewer a fair chance to guess what’s going to happen…only for Truffaut to pull the rug out from under us again. The film is more classical in filmmaking than past Truffaut films- here the influence of Jean Renoir and Orson Welles shows- but that’s not to say that he’s not willing to throw in a few new tricks as well, like playing with sound design to let us know that something is up or a transition scene that would feel at home in an Indiana Jones movie.

Like many Truffaut films, Mississippi Mermaid is largely about alienation (here’s where the Nicholas Ray influence shows up). Julie (really called Marion) is another one of society’s misfits, just like Antoine Doinel, Catherine from Jules and Jim, or Charlie from Shoot the Piano Player. She’s lived a sad life fraught with peril and loneliness, has had to become a thief to survive, and has a history of sexual abuse. In prison, the lights were left on all night, and she can no longer sleep without the lights on because of it. She and her co-conspirator killed the real Julie and plotted to take Louis for everything he was worth, but when she first met him she tried to live a straight life. No dice: she couldn’t adjust to married life. She’s too wild, a force of nature above all else. Deneuve plays this rather well. Equally strong is Belmondo as the polar opposite of his Breathless character- rather than a dim-witted, posturing gangster, Louis is as privileged as privileged gets. He has more money than what he knows what to do with, and when he loses everything, he loses his place in society. When he tries to get back with Marion, he commits murder for her, becomes an outcast for her. He is now just as hunted as she.

And yet it’s all understandable. Truffaut may be wary of society, but he’s too much of a romantic not to understand the overwhelming pull of love. Louis should know right away that something isn’t right with Julie- she doesn’t look a thing like her picture, and she’s acting strange. But he’s too intoxicated by her presence (she does look like Catharine Deneuve, after all), and he’s utterly blinded by love. When she leaves him, he travels to Paris for revenge. Truffaut drags out a suspense scene worthy of Hitchcock as he breaks into her apartment and waits to shoot her. And yet he can’t do it. He’s too in love. Even as he realizes near the end of the film that she’s trying to poison him, he accepts it. Guilty, she saves his life, and in a scene reminiscent of the ending of Grand Illusion, the two stumble across the border towards a more hopeful life. Life’s a bitch, and society can’t be trusted, but love is too powerful to resist.

NOTE: The film was remade as Original Sin. I’d highly recommend not seeing that one.

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