Director: Francois Truffaut
Starring: Jean-Paul Belmondo, Catherine Deneuve
Mississippi Mermaid in three words: Truffaut does Hitchcock. If that isn’t enough to pique your interest, I’ll also add that it stars two icons of French cinema: Catherine Deneuve and Jean-Paul Belmondo. Still not intrigued? What if I told you that it was the inspiration for 2001’s Original Sin, starring Antonio Banderas and Angelina Jolie... actually, forget that last one. That’s probably not helping my case at all.
Belmondo stars as Louis, a plantation and factory owner on Réunion Island. As the film opens he’s getting ready for the arrival of his mail-order bride, Julie Roussel, whom he hopes will help abate his loneliness. He goes to meet her ship, The Mississippi Mermaid, and is crushed when he realizes that she’s not on board – until, that is, a woman (Deneuve) who looks nothing like the photo he has introduces herself as Julie. When questioned about the photo she explains that, out of shyness, she sent a picture of her sister instead and Louis accepts this story because he’s so enchanted by her. They marry and for a short period seem happy, though there are some unsettling incidents: Julie’s coldness, for example, when Louis informs her that her pet bird has died, and the violent confrontation between Julie and a mysterious man that is witnessed by Louis’ right hand man. But Louis is so deeply under her spell that he overlooks these ominous signs and finds himself manipulated not only into giving her free and clear access to his bank accounts, but into thinking that it was his idea as well.
After cleaning out the accounts Julie disappears, and not a moment too soon as the real Julie’s sister shows up to find out what has happened to Julie, who has been incommunicado since boarding the Mississippi Mermaid. Louis and the sister hire a private detective, Camolli (Michel Bouquet), to find the woman and to find out what happened to the real Julie, but shortly thereafter Louis gets a lead of his own and decides to pursue it. He finds the false Julie, whose real name is Marion Vergano, in Antibes and she tells him her sob story, which wins him back to her side (this may sound implausible but, bear in mind, she does look like Catherine Deneuve). When Camolli comes around and refuses to just let Marion go because Julie’s sister paid half his retainer and he therefore has an obligation to follow through for her, Louis ends up killing him and then he and Marion bury his body and go on the run together, where their already shaky relationship is tested and Louis begins to question anew whether Marion can be trusted.
Mississippi Mermaid has all the twists and turns that you would find in a Hitchcock film, but it must be said that Truffaut never truly creates the consistency in tone that Hitchcock was able to effect. Hitchcock is best known for his sinister thrillers, but he made a couple of more light-hearted films as well (such as the caper To Catch A Thief and the dark comedy The Trouble with Harry); the trouble with Mississippi Mermaid is that it in its first act it tries to alternate between those two modes. It finds its footing once it decides that it wants to be a dark suspense film, but there’s some inconsistency with respect to the tone as the story goes through the motions of its set-up. It’s not that the lighter seeming scenes don’t work, it’s just that they don’t comfortably fit with the film overall.
Belmondo and Deneuve fit their characters with ease, their individual charms making up for some of the shortcomings regarding the way their characters are constructed. Louis is an all too willing dupe and the plot relies on him being kind of an idiot, but Belmondo is able to sell you on the idea that Louis is a smart guy who is just so obsessed with Marion that he would gladly let her kill him as long as he still got to enjoy the pleasure of her company. Deneuve, meanwhile, essentially has to play two roles: Julie, the mask of innocence and sweetness, and the hard-edged and ruthless Marion. She’s believable in both roles, giving each a different kind of body language and way of speaking, making clear distinctions between the two women. You never truly know what Marion is capable of because the layers are always being peeled back, each time revealing something even darker and more unsettling. The film has what I suppose could be considered a happy ending but, given everything that came before, you’ve got to wonder just what Marion might do to Louis next.
Given the groundbreaking classics in Truffaut’s filmmography, Mississippi Mermaid can perhaps only be considered one of his minor works, but it’s definitely worth seeking out. It’s a little bit uneven, yes, but when all is said and done, the things that work easily outnumber the things that don’t.