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Oeuvre is an in-depth examination of the entire body of work of an important director.

Mississippi Mermaid is ostensibly a thriller, based on the late ’40s noir novel Waltz into Darkness by Cornell Woolrich – which was also the basis for the Angelina Jolie/Antonio Banderas movie Original Sin, if you can believe that. The premise is a great one for any Hitchcockian-type potboiler: a wealthy man named Louis (Jean-Paul Belmondo) gets himself a mail order bride after corresponding with her through the mail. When Julie (Catherine Deneuve) finally arrives, she is not who the letters describe, nor is she the woman in the picture she sent.

However, this being a French New Wave film – even a late period one – the basic synopsis is just a bit of enticement for the auteur to smuggle his actual ideas into the film. Yes, there’s the requisite embracing of low-art entertainment as they go to the movies (“It wasn’t just a western,” remarks Julie, self-reflexively as the pair walk out of a theatre) and read old pulp novels. Louis has a startling realization because his situation resembles something going on in a Disney Snow White comic strip. Mostly, however, Mississippi Mermaid is about marriage, and the human desire for relationships.

Truffaut clues us in from the beginning: the opening credits play over images of newspapers as voiceovers read a diverse range of personals ads. Everyone wants love, even if they have to resort to advertisement blurbs or, in the case of our main character, the postal service. By the way, voiceovers – while often lazy and unsubtle – make for one of the best parts of the film: Louis drives, intently and dangerously fast, while the audio of a scene we’re never shown plays over the shot. It’s not only an economical way to get two things across (namely, a plot point and travel) in one scene, but it also has an artistic effect, suggesting the idea of a conversation playing over and over in the head of someone who’s just found out something devastating.

Over the course of Mississippi Mermaid, Truffaut constructs a microcosm of a relationship via a thriller plot. Julie not resembling her photograph is the moment where a man’s preconceived notions about who they’re going to be with clash with who he actually falls in love with. The marriage is that euphoric getting-to-know-you phase, followed by the demystification process as deep, dark pasts resurface and even facts taken for granted about a lover are shown to be incorrect (say, preferring tea to coffee).

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Truffaut directs here from a male perspective, as he often does. The Antoine Doinel films are an easy target because they’re autobiographical, but I don’t remember his third film being called Jules et Jim et Catherine, either. As such, it’s easy to see Mississippi Mermaid as a touch sexist, a film about how women completely sap men of their money, their livelihood and even their health – a two-hour long version of “can’t live with ’em – can’t live without ’em.” But that kind of summation might be reductive, considering that our protagonist is not the most relatable character of all time.

Belmondo delivers the sort of performance that requires the actor to run the gamut of emotional situations, from lovey-dovey bliss to stern pistol-aiming to annoyed marital disputes. Even when we question his actions, Belmondo is always believable. As the character demands, Deneuve plays the role with a certain amount of ethereal distance. Unlike Louis, we never understand what’s going through Julie’s head. I can’t imagine Truffaut does, either.

Gender politics aside, Mississippi Mermaid is, at first, inscrutable. Why does Louis suffer all this unnecessary hardship, getting himself deeper and deeper into trouble as characters in crime stories often do? Why does he stay with this woman who poisons him, first figuratively and then literally? He does it, ladies and gentleman, because he’s in love, and Truffaut is a softie. Mississippi Mermaid, then, is about the insane, irrational and confounding things people do for love, from putting ads in the paper all the way to letting someone slowly poison them in a cottage in the snowy woods.

By the way, what is it with Truffaut and cottages in the snowy woods? Shoot the Piano Player ended similarly, but in that film the cottage represented a return to the base, violent lifestyle that our hero was trying to avoid the entire film. Here, the cottage is a sort of retirement, where our main characters settle down into a modest lifestyle, and slowly grow weaker in metaphorical old age (well, at least one of them does). It is here, curiously, that Louis finally gets through to his wife by giving in – which endears him to her, giving her something pathetic to take care of. It seems like nature is the last resort in Truffaut’s films (see: the ending to The 400 Blows), the last place of escape our characters have, which is never really escape at all. The Piano Player has to go back to the saloon. In this film, however, the form the inevitable return takes is confounding, and not necessarily earned, but almost makes sense if Truffaut is trying to depict the irrationality of love.

So, is Truffaut a hopeless, self-flagellating romantic or is Mississippi Mermaid just really sexist and problematic? The jury’s not just out; it’s hung.

Maybe it will help if we peek into the director’s biography. In 1968, Truffaut was briefly engaged to Stolen Kisses actress Claude Jade. A year later, Truffaut released a film where a woman who looks like Claude Jade remarks that she’s attracted to men who look like they’re balding, and one where the protagonist would not have a single problem were he not married to this woman. This cannot be a coincidence. Mississippi Mermaid plays as if Truffaut were depicting the potential trajectories of his failed relationship – man-made afterimages of a love that didn’t happen.

by Danny Djeljosevic

See Also: Oeuvre: Truffaut- Stolen Kisses

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