“The Mermaid is above all else a tale of degradation through love, of a passion,” François Truffaut said of his 1969 film Mississippi Mermaid. “I think most of my films are built on the principle of a complication in which the protagonist, always weaker than his partner, gets caught.”
The protagonist in this case is Louis Mahé (Jean-Paul Belmondo), and at the beginning of Mississippi Mermaid, he receives one of the biggest disappointments of his life — so far, anyway. Lonely but reluctant to date since the death, years earlier, of the only girl he ever loved, he finally resorted to placing a classified ad in the newspaper, and through it he became acquainted with a woman named Julie Roussel. After exchanging photographs and a number of letters, the two have agreed to wed, despite never having met in person; however, when the ship on which Julie is supposed to arrive pulls into port, Louis can’t locate her among the disembarking crowd. “Are there any other passengers?” he asks a crew member anxiously. “No, sir,” the man replies. “There’s nobody else on board.”
Dejected, Louis returns to his car alone. A woman (Catherine Deneuve) is standing nearby, but he fails to take any serious notice of her until she addresses him: “Don’t you recognize me, Mr. Mahé?” He doesn’t. According to the woman, who introduces herself as Julie Roussel, there’s a good reason for that: The photo she sent him was of a neighbor, not of her, because she was afraid to confide in him completely at first, and too embarrassed to correct the mistake once he proposed. Fortunately for her, Louis doesn’t mind — not least of all because she’s prettier than the woman in the picture. “It’s a charming lie,” he declares. As it happens, he wrote her a charming lie of his own. “I told you that I was a foreman in a factory making cigarettes,” he says. “That’s not true. I’m the owner of the factory.” Pleasing though this news should be to her, Julie appears largely unfazed. “I don’t understand business,” she responds.
With these confessions out of the way, the two marry as planned. Near-strangers that they are, some difficulties are to be expected as they adjust to life together, yet there are hints from the start that something isn’t quite right about this situation. Little oddities, negligible in and of themselves — Julie’s wedding ring doesn’t fit, she prefers coffee to tea even though she wrote the opposite, she’s in no hurry to open her trunk, she’s indifferent when her pet canary dies — start to accumulate. Louis brushes these things off, more or less, but then, at his factory, he receives a frantic letter from Julie’s sister Berthe (Nelly Borgeaud), who demands to know why she hasn’t heard from Julie since the bride-to-be left home. Concerned, he phones his wife; she, decidedly less concerned, agrees to write to Berthe that very day.
When Louis returns to their house that evening, he doesn’t find her composing a letter — in fact, he can’t find her at all. Even he, blinded as he’s been by love, can no longer ignore all of the red flags, and once he races to his bank, his worst fears are realized: She’s cleaned out his accounts and disappeared. Berthe, who soon arrives, gives him further confirmation after he shows her a picture of the woman he married. “No, that’s not my sister,” she says. Together, they hire a private detective named Comilli (Michel Bouquet) to track down the imposter and bring her to justice. While Comolli sets to work, Louis decides to escape his bad memories by leaving his home on the island of Réunion and traveling to France, only to suffer a breakdown before he steps off the plane. He ends up in a clinic in Nice, forced to undergo a sleeping cure to deal with his exhaustion. One night, as he watches television with the other patients, a news report about a recently opened nightclub seizes his attention — specifically, a familiar face among the hostesses there. Now that he know where the ersatz Julie is, Louis resolves to kill her.
Mississippi Mermaid is based on the novel Waltz Into Darkness by William Irish, a pen name sometimes employed by writer Cornell Woolrich. A number of Woolrich’s other works had been adapted for the screen previously, including the short story “It Had to Be Murder,” the source of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954). Truffaut himself had shot a film version of the author’s The Bride Wore Black in 1967, and it was during his preparations for that project that he first encountered Waltz Into Darkness. In keeping with his cinephilia, he was drawn to this particular tale because it reminded him of such films as Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel (1930) and Jean Renoir’s La Chienne (1931). “The theme of the vamp, the femme fatale who subjugates an honest man to the point where he becomes a puppet — all of the filmmakers I admire have tackled it,” he explained. “I said to myself: It has to be done.”
Truffaut dedicated the film to Renoir “because, in my work of improvisation, it was of him that I was always thinking,” he said in a 1969 interview with Le Monde. “With each difficulty I asked myself: ‘How would Renoir get out of this?'” Réunion-set footage from the director’s La Marseillaise (1938) appears in Mississippi Mermaid‘s prologue, and the ending, which takes place in the snow, serves as a nod to the ending of Renoir’s Grand Illusion (1937). (The final scenes also evoke Truffaut’s own 1960 film Shoot the Piano Player, in part because the two movies were shot at the same cabin.) A famous line from Renoir’s The Rules of the Game (1939) is relevant to the story as well, at least the way Truffaut presents it: “The awful thing about life is this: Everyone has their reasons.”
In adapting Woolrich’s novel, Truffaut made several significant changes, the most obvious being a shift in setting from New Orleans in the 1880s to Réunion in the 1960s. (He felt that shooting it as a costume drama, in English no less, would have placed an unwanted constraint on him, preventing him from improvising.) More subtly, but no less significantly, he altered the two central figures and their relationship. “Perhaps that is another reason I transposed the Mermaid to our own time — because, in our days, things are no longer like that. A girl, today, is no longer a vamp, a slut. She is a character who is much more understandable. And the victim is no longer entirely a victim. What used to be black and white has now become gray.”
Accordingly, he endeavored to humanize the woman who calls herself Julie Roussel (in actuality, Marion Vergano), to make her more sympathetic, less calculating and manipulative than her counterpart in the book. This begins even before she disappears — for example, she has a panic attack when she tries to sleep without a light on, later revealed to be an after-effect of her time in reform schools — but it’s especially prominent once Louis tracks her down. In spite of his determination to kill her and her willingness to let him do so (whether she’s calling his bluff or she’s genuinely tired of life is up for debate), he drops his gun almost immediately, admitting that he can’t bring himself to pull the trigger. Before long, her confession, a tale of bad beginnings and hard luck, wins his forgiveness, and the two become a couple again. Their growing intimacy is emotional as well as sexual, underlined by several moments in which they open up to one another about their pasts, their feelings; Marion, less willing than Louis to be vulnerable, makes a recording for him while he’s away for a few days, telling him that she misses him and apologizing for being unkind (though she does end up talking about money and how “poverty is mediocrity”).
Truffaut invented and incorporated many of the scenes focusing on the couple’s relationship during production of the film, scenes without clear equivalents in Waltz Into Darkness. (Mississippi Mermaid was, for the record, shot mostly in sequence.) In fact, even Marion’s confession, though certainly inspired by the book, was heavily based on stories told to him by a former girlfriend — art imitating life. Life would imitate art as well: In 1971 he, like Louis, had to undergo a sleeping cure (involving sleeping pills and sedatives) in order to cope with a traumatic break-up… from Catherine Deneuve. Antoine de Baecque and Serge Toubiana, in their biography of Truffaut, suggest that the film’s subject matter may have helped spark the director/actress romance and conclude that “Mississippi Mermaid allowed Truffaut to live a great love story, with a beginning, a middle, and an end.”
Perhaps, then, Louis can be seen as a kind of stand-in for Truffaut — not uncommon among his protagonists. From a purely physical standpoint, the muscular Jean-Paul Belmondo was an atypical Truffaut lead; script supervisor Suzanne Schiffman noted that the director preferred to cast small, wiry men like himself. (“I don’t know how they move,” he told her, speaking about taller actors.) Moreover, the character stood in sharp contrast to his established image. “Belmondo had already been classified as a virile strongman, and I tried to turn him into Antoine Doinel’s brother,” Truffaut admitted regretfully in 1977. Antoine Doinel was his own alter ego in a series of semi-autobiographical films, a romantic, often childlike (and childish) young man, and it’s true that Louis shares some of his traits. He’s the kind of person who puts his new wife’s photograph on the boxes of cigarettes produced by his factory, who encourages her to make a wish under a special tree. Notably, while the Louis of the book toiled and struggled to establish his coffee-import house, the Louis of the film inherited his cigarette factory from his parents, making him all the more sheltered — quite unlike the streetwise Marion.
Truffaut viewed their marriage as a reversal of stereotypical gender roles. “Mississippi Mermaid depicts a weak man (despite the way he looks) who is spellbound by a strong woman (despite appearances),” he said in 1975. “My work during the making of the film was informed by a secret approach: for me, Catherine was a boy, a hooligan who had had a hard time, and Jean-Paul a girl who was expecting everything from her marriage.” He attributed the film’s commercial failure partly to this, partly to casting his high-profile stars against type, and partly to its blending of cliché and sincerity — “an affectionate homage to American cinema,” he called it. What initially seems like a Hitchcock-esque thriller or a noir (in its themes if not in its look) is undercut, for better or for worse, by the manner in which the couple’s relationship develops. Carole Le Berre, in François Truffaut at Work, points out the way the director “re-introduce[d] marriage at the heart of thriller scenes,” even having the characters quibble over Marion’s extravagant coat at a particularly tense moment. “I want people to behave normally in a situation that is not normal,” Truffaut said.
And yet, in spite of the alterations and additions that he made to the source material, Mississippi Mermaid manages to hit most of the novel’s major plot points. There may be more substance to Louis’s love for Marion in the film — he comes across as somewhat less helpless under his wife’s spell than the Louis of Waltz Into Darkness, less desperate for “any love, from anywhere, on any terms” (to quote Woolrich) — but it still leads him down a dark and dangerous path and drives him to acts he never would have imagined himself committing. As for Marion, she’s not rendered entirely innocuous. Because of her rough past, her instinct is to do whatever it takes to survive — even if that means killing Louis. His declaration to her when he realizes what’s going on is rather extraordinary. “I am not sorry to have known you,” he says. “I am not sorry I love you.” Has he, in learning to accept her for what she is, given up his romantic notions, or is this romanticism to the extreme? In this curious hybrid of a film, it’s difficult to be sure.
De Baecque, Antoine, and Serge Toubiana. Truffaut: A Biography. Trans. Catherine Temerson. New York: Knopf, 1999.
Le Berre, Carole. François Truffaut at Work. Trans. Bill Krohn. London: Phaidon, 2005.
Le Roman de François Truffaut. Paris: Editions de l’Etoile, 1985.
Truffaut by Truffaut. Ed. Dominique Rabourdin. Trans. Robert Erich Wolf. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1987.
Woolrich, Cornell. Waltz Into Darkness. New York: Ballantine, 1983.
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