Review: Mississippi Mermaid (1970)
Mississippi Mermaid airs on TCM Friday, July 12th & Monday, August 12th. Check local listings for times.
Crime fiction has been a go-to resource for screenwriters since the dawn of film. (Fantomas, anyone?) Perhaps the reason is that mysteries and thrillers are steeped in a plot driven format. The greatest works of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, Cornell Woolrich and Patricia Highsmith found ways to build character and illustrate vulnerability, desire and obsession while continuing to rely on strong, successful plotting One of the genre’s most sought after writers was Cornell Woolrich, whose vast catalog had more film noir adaptations than any other crime novelist. Rear Window (It Had to Be Murder), The Bride Wore Black, and The Leopard Man are his most well known, but there are more than 20 others.
Francois Truffaut was a major fan of Woolrich, American films and specifically, noir. Shoot the Piano Player was his sophomore directing effort made from David Goodis’ thriller Down There, and he later adapted two Woolrich stories (The Bride Wore Black and Waltz into Darkness) in 1968 & ‘70. Mississippi Mermaid (“Waltz”) was a financial flop and initially panned, but has recently gained praise and new found respect. Chiefly criticized for its uneven tone (mystery to romance to sentimental) and a Hollywood-style ending, you can feel Truffaut struggling to use the book’s framework as a launching pad for more elevated ideas and philosophies.
A coffee plantation owner, Louis Mahe, living on a French Provincial island, has been using the classifieds to find a wife. He strikes up a romantic correspondence with a woman, Julie Roussel, and he eventually has her shipped to the island to marry. The woman he meets claims to be Julie, but, based on the picture he has, is obviously not. This woman is much more beautiful. She explains that she sent the picture of someone less attractive so she would discover if he loved her for who she was. He also has not been honest. Louis claimed in his letters he was a foreman, not the owner of the island’s most profitable business.
Louis takes her right to church and marries her. Clues start to surface that prove beyond a doubt that this woman is not Julie. The wedding ring she had sized doesn’t fit; she shows no interest in her parakeet that eventually starves to death; and letters continually arrive from her sister, demanding her whereabouts. The final straw, when Louis’ suspicion fulminates, is when he opens her steamer trunk and discovers none of the clothes are hers. By the time he figures this all out, she has emptied his bank accounts and vanished. Humiliated, he and Julie’s real sister hire a private investigator to find the murderess and bring her to justice. The whole scenario sends Louis into a nervous breakdown. While convalescing, he sees a TV commercial for a club in Antibes and catches quick shots of his wife dancing with “customers.” He makes his way there, and reveals himself to her. From this point, their dysfunctional relationship pivots between obsessive love and madness, driving him to murder.
This is where Truffaut’s Mississippi Mermaid deviates the most from the book. Rather than give away the book’s engrossing third act, suffice it to say the characters instead play out a psychodrama of love and hate with one another. The film’s final declaration between the two of them is the most contrived of all plot points, and reveals a scene that is probably the lynch pin for Mississippi Mermaid’s negative reactions. The scene’s attempts to offer up some of Woolrich’s darker themes, betrays the story, and the filmmaker himself, with an idealistic sentimental wrap up. For those familiar with the modern, trashy remake, Original Sin with Antonio Banderas and Angelina Jolie, this bodice-ripper actually stays truer to the book, setting it in New Orleans, and following the surprising twists and turns that Truffaut pitched out in the third act. But this version is so over-the-top, it runs roughshod over the story’s subtleties.
The only other element that makes Mississippi Mermaid challenging is the casting of Jean Paul Belmondo. While his character’s reason for using the classifieds to get a wife are sound, based on his desolate locale, he’s just too damned good looking to believably be that awkward, that desperate, and ultimately, that unschooled in affairs of the heart. The character, as written, is rather plain looking, and older. Belmondo does a fine job, but if Truffaut were to cast, say Charles Aznavour (his lead from Shoot the Piano Player) or even himself, the actor’s appearance would allow this plot point to feel less contrived.
Still, Mississippi Mermaid is a good film, the high drama set against the vérité milieu of the island a benchmark of Truffaut’s best work. Catherine Deneuve’s performance, cold, distant, seductive and finally, quite yielding, is a logical progression of her housewife/prostitute persona from Belle de Jour. The most compelling element, however, is Truffaut’s ability to take a noir storyline, strip away the cinematic trappings of that style, and present it in a seemingly fresh, new way- proof positive that he was not only a great director with a firm understanding of the rules, but also had the ability to break them.
A Gallery of Images from Mississippi Mermaid