THE FIRST FEW MINUTES of Francois Truffaut's Mississippi Mermaid (1969) feels like a casting mistake. Catherine Deneuve, as always, is romance personified, wearing a fluttery light-blue-and-yellow dress, her gold-blond hair packed neatly under a straw hat. Not your garden-variety mail-order bride.
directed by Francois Truffaut
playing January 8-14 at Grand Illusion
A vision of elegance, Deneuve is hardly the type who'd sell herself to an unknown man across the globe. Yet there she is, playing a simple girl, literally fresh off the boat and grateful to Jean-Paul Belmondo for saving her from gloomy prospects: Being an orphan, she's lucky that any man would want to adopt—ahem, marry—her at all.
"You have your own house?" she asks, surprised, as Belmondo drives her to her new home. And what a grand house it is—a white-washed estate by the sea. And oh, what luck! The groom isn't the poor factory worker he told her he was in his letters—he's the heir to a tobacco empire. Bowled over by such good fortune, Deneuve's face gleams with an angelic light.
Soon, however, things go awry, with numerous hints that Deneuve's character isn't exactly the ingenue she claims to be. She wants a whole new wardrobe, she appears not to care at all when her pet canary dies, and she sneaks away to meet a strange man. Wealth suits her instantly: While black workers hack away at Belmondo's tobacco fields, we see the couple lounging at the lawn table, pouring coffee and buttering their croissants. It's a scene out of Home & Garden, with Deneuve as a lovely accessory to the sun-dappled estate.
Then, before you know it, Belmondo gives her access to his bank account, and the movie takes off.
Who exactly is this beautiful woman? The audience gets the answer quickly enough, but Belmondo's character descends into a fog that gets thicker as the story plays out. So in love with Deneuve's beauty is our doomed hero that he is hopelessly committed to her, for better or worse. Even after she's stolen Belmondo's fortunes, he's devoured by his desire to be with her. One minute he hates her; the next minute he wants to make love. (Anyone who's gone through a bad breakup will recognize the vicious cycle.) The more she betrays him, the more he wants her and the more desperate his actions become. It can be painful to watch Belmondo as he paints a poignant portrait of desire making one forgive the worst of crimes.
Based on the novel Waltz into Darkness (1947) by Cornell Woolrich, the American author of Rear Window and other pulp classics that have been translated into film, the story of Mississippi Mermaid is pure noir, with its caricatures of the good guy and the femme fatale. The film, however, is a synthesis of different films and styles, with references to directors Renoir (to whom the film is dedicated), to Hitchcock, and to Truffaut's own works. When Mississippi Mermaid was first released in the US in 1970, it opened to mixed reviews and descended into the lower strata of Truffaut's filmography. The restored version that Grand Illusion is currently playing puts 13 key minutes back into the original cut, and suggests that it is time to re-evaluate.