Between New Wave and Studio Backlot

07/08/2009 4:00 AM |

Mississippi Mermaid (1969)
Directed by François Truffaut

Peppered with nods to Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks and film noir, Mississippi Mermaid is at times a variation on the familiar story of the fallen woman and elsewhere a globetrotting postcolonial romantic thriller. An odd artifact from a film industry and director in transition, Truffaut’s mid-career blockbuster still features hallmarks of the French New Wave while foreshadowing the country’s return to a traditional studio system. It has big stars (Jean-Paul Belmondo as Louis and Catherine Deneuve as Marion) and fancy location shooting (on the French island of La Reunion, in the South of France and in the Alps), yet features hallmarks of the Cahiers du cinéma crowd’s beloved pulp fictions, a femme fatal and hard-boiled P.I. (Yves Drouhet), and undertakes a more casual and effective engagement with France’s colonial legacy than Jean-Luc Godard’s La chinoise, which came out only two years earlier but seems incredibly juvenile by comparison.

Opening on the aforementioned French island in the Indian Ocean, Mississippi Mermaid begins as a strange modern version of an early American settler family narrative. Rich tobacco tycoon Louis awaits the arrival of his fiancée (on a ship named Mississippi) in his vast yet lonely estate, their imminent union the outcome of an epistolary courtship that’s at once an arranged marriage, a mail-order bride service and a romanticized version of a meeting sparked by classified ads (which, incidentally, are read in jumbled voice-over during the opening credits, Godard-style). Louis’s timid life with the woman he believes to be his fiancé (Deneuve), set against the sweaty, picturesque colonial backdrop, feels like such a quintessentially Southern scenario that you’ll be surprised there aren’t steamships passing in the background. Though set in the 60s, the film’s opening tableaux of domestic shyness and unease feel ancient, which makes their upending all the more enjoyable.

As the story shifts to the South of France and the neo-noir plot accelerates, Truffaut seems more at ease, as do Belmondo and Deneuve. Back on mainland, both turn out to be a great deal more flawed and dynamic than the stiff, nearly neutered society couple they played in the tropics. Acting, of course, is very much a part of the fiction in this tale of overlapping double-crossings, cons and betrayals. As competing performances gradually undo one another, Truffaut reduces the narrative scope to another confined domestic setting, this time a cabin near Switzerland that anticipates, of all things, Robert Altman’s McCabe & Ms. Miller (1971). For all its allusions and influences, this remains very much a Truffaut picture, and an essential one as his career shifted from its upstart early days to a more comfortable and entrenched late period. Neither as thrillingly gritty as Shoot the Piano Player (1960), nor as successful in its epic aspirations as Day for Night (1973), Mississippi Mermaid remains a curious and compelling domestic drama turned cat-and-mouse noir thriller.

July 10-16 at BAM