Release Date(s)1969 (February 14, 2023)
Studio(s)Les Films du Carrosse/United Artists (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
- Film/Program Grade: A
- Video Grade: B+
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: C
Wikipedia describes François Truffaut’s Mississippi Mermaid (La Sirène du Mississipi, 1969) as a “romantic drama” and, while technically true, the film is really better classified as neo-noir. Indeed, everything about it screams film noir, with Truffaut subverting one genre convention in a way that’s not entirely clear until the end of the film, an unusual, maybe even unique dollop adding to what had come before.
Based on Cornell Woolrich’s 1947 novel Waltz into Darkness, Woolwich stories also being the basis for Truffaut’s The Bride Wore Black (1968) and Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954), the film opens with wealthy tobacco plantation owner Louis Mahé (Jean-Paul Belmondo) preparing for the arrival on his bride-to-be—a woman with whom he has corresponded but never met—on the tiny, far-flung island of Réunion, in the Indian Ocean east of Madagascar. No one matching her photograph disembarks from the steamer Mississipi (sic) but, returning to his car, Julie Roussel (Catherine Deneuve), who doesn’t at all match the photograph, greets him. She asks Louis to forgive the deception and he does—as she’s far more beautiful than the woman in the photograph, why would he not?
They soon marry and are outwardly happy, but there are numerous indications Julie is not the woman she claims she is. Her pre-measured wedding band doesn’t fit, she prefers coffee to tea, contradicting claims in her letters, and so forth. Louis notices these things but, well, love is blind, especially when he gives her complete access to his bank accounts and, sure enough, one afternoon she disappears with all his money.
With the real Julia presumed murdered, Louis, along with Julia’s sister, Berthe (Nelly Borgeaud), hire private detective Comolli (Michel Bouquet) to find and arrest the imposter—but that’s just the beginning of this story.
Reviews for Mississippi Mermaid were generally good, but there was some dissent. (Andrew Sarris called it “fundamentally ridiculous.”) I suspect some viewers were caught off guard seeing man’s-man Belmondo cast against type as a lovesick chump, the kind of character classic noir types like Jane Greer and Barbara Stanwyck played for suckers back in ‘40s noir. The movie audience watching Mississippi Mermaid is suspicious of Deneuve’s Julie from the start, so why is Louis so absurdly trusting?
The answer lies in one of Truffaut’s familiar themes, that love is unpredictable, often tumultuous, even violent, and operates under its own, sometimes perverse logic. (Mild Spoilers) Louis knows he’s being played for a fool but for him that doesn’t matter; he’s transfixed by the Julie imposter, despite her enigmatic, subtle and not-so-subtle ruthlessness. Until the end of the film, it’s unclear whether she’s a complete sociopath, attracted only to his money, or has genuine feelings for him, even when she tries to murder him. Truffaut makes the case that love can be fulfilling and destructive at the same time, that you can even love someone bent on snuffing out your existence, and that, perhaps, they can love you even as they try to murder you.
The picture is unusually lavish. Truffaut had an ongoing agreement with United Artists, which partly financed the $1.5 million production, bolstered no doubt by the presence of Belmondo and Deneuve, two of France’s biggest and most bankable stars. The Réunion setting is unusual and interesting (the poorly-received 2001 remake, Original Sin, is set in 19th century Cuba), and Truffaut and cinematographer Denys Clerval’s decision to shoot the film in 2.35:1 Dyaliscope make excellent use of that location, as well as other locales in France, including Nice and Lyon.
The Julie character perfectly suits Deneuve, who could be as inexpressive as a department store mannequin when miscast, but whose icy beauty and reserved manner work perfectly in tandem with her character. Likewise, Truffaut gets an engrossing performance from the greatly missed Belmondo (who died in 2021), tapping into the actor’s sensitive side, while also making room for signature Belmondo moments. (The famously athletic actor here effortlessly scales up the side of a Nice hotel like Spiderman, with no apparent safety net.)
For years I mixed up this film up with another Truffaut title, A Gorgeous Girl Like Me (1972); both movies having titles that don’t really describe what they are. A Gorgeous Girl Like Me is one of the few Truffaut films I don’t particularly like, so I avoided Mississippi Mermaid thinking it was the other title. (A better English title would be “Siren of the Mississippi.”) In any case, I was fairly gobsmacked.
Partly this was because I went into Mississippi Mermaid with no idea what it was about—almost always the best way to see movies—and its story is both familiar (the noir elements) and unusual (Truffaut’s spin on the material). Truffaut’s screenplay is instantly compelling, fascinating even, and spins off in unexpected directions and the results are outrageous yet believable, operating under its own logic.
Kino’s Blu-ray, licensed from MGM, like their release of The Bride Wore Black uses an older but perfectly acceptable high-def transfer, Region “A” encoded. There’s a moderate amount of speckling at the head and tails of reels, during opticals, etc., with room for improvement in color and sharpness, but projected on my relatively big (about 12-feet diagonal) screen, it’s perfectly adequate. The DTS-HD Master Audio (2.0 mono) in French only is likewise okay with room for improvement; the English subtitles are good, but in one scene toward the end their timing seemed a second or two off.
Twilight Time previously released the film on Blu-ray in 2016, a release long out-of-print. Kino’s version appears to be derived from the same video transfer, and incorporates from that earlier release the audio commentary track featuring Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman, and the English-language trailer (from a mediocre, standard-def source). Missing from the Twilight Time release is their isolated music track and booklet.
Mississippi Mermaid is one of Truffaut’s best films, and a must-see for fans of film noir.
- Stuart Galbraith IV