Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Papa Mike's Video #6: Francois Truffaut's MISSISSIPPI MERMAID

A gangly logline, sure, but the poster is pretty damn amazing
Mississippi Mermaid (damn, it's a job just to type 'Mississippi') is said to be Francois Truffaut's first big studio movie (and what, Fahrenheit 451 was a little indie movie?) and it shows just in the stars, Jean-Paul Belmondo and Catherine Deneuve - two of France's most beautiful and prominent - and that the story should give these actors something juicy to play with: a man has the 1960's equivalent of a web-relationship, with letters and correspondence, and asks this woman to be his wife on the island of Reunion (I'm sure there's significance there, whatever), not knowing that a) this woman is NOT who she says she is, b) the actual woman is dead, and c) there may be a bit of a con going on with this woman and this man, who owns a plantation/factory on the island, and his millions of dollars.

It's pulpy material, and yet... I couldn't see too much past the B-movie ness of it.  It's a B movie by an A-quality director.  Or rather, Truffaut is smart in how he chooses his material, which is from a Cornell Woolrich story (also writer for a few good pulpy noirs of the 1940's and Hitchcock's Rear Window - his other contribution for Truffaut, The Bride Wore Black, I've yet to see), and to take from Hitchcock (or maybe Renoir? I got the sense Renoir was cause he had recently passed away).  Hey, why not?  A suspense film with big stars in exotic locales?  Will this be more Vertigo or To Catch a Thief?

A time when traveling by map was a serious matter.

The real flipping-of-the-script as it were in the story of Louis (Belmondo) and Julie-cum-Marion (Deneuve) is that when Louis does track his wife down to a small town where she is dancing the night away, and she confesses the wrongs she has done, but also her past: she was an orphan, she had a rough early life, then she met a man on a ship headed to Reunion, saw him kill the real Julie Roussel, and then, well, things just 'happened' the way they did.  Instead of, y'know, trying to dig deeper about where his money is, or do something like kill her, he decides to do something unexpected: fall even deeper, and madder, in love.  And in a way this is what makes the second half most interesting.  Now that there is some sort of understanding, a newfound relationship can be had, where before there was a coldness to things (i.e. the wedding band Belmondo puts on Deneuve's finger, on-the-nose but still effective symbolism as to their 'bond').

My problem, and maybe this won't be for all people, was that there was a nagging feeling throughout this second half, which I think Truffaut played up more as the film got closer to its climax in the cabin in the woods, that the bottom would drop out.  Certainly I wasn't sure what to feel for Belmondo, except that he was a total dupe, and yet as the film went on I did get the sense, maybe more from the performances than the writing (albeit a few keen-funny moments like an unintended flashing of Deneuve's breasts on a road-side), that these people were in love and would do anything for one another.  Doomed?  I dunno.  But this guy just never clicked with me, except perhaps as a romantic foil, like Bunuel's lead in That Obscure Object of Desire, only Truffaut is nowhere near as ruthless as Bunuel in depicting romantic obsession and ennui.  Unlike in, say, The Soft Skin, a very tough romantic picture, he doesn't quite go FAR enough in a strange way.

Sleeping Beauty 2: Electric Fuckaloo... yeah, I got nothing.

Maybe he IS a good manipulator in a sense of 'Will she or WON'T she' do something, but a lot of the second half when it's not googly-eyed Belmondo at Deneuve by, say, a fireside describing in synonyms every part of her face, there's fighting and bickering.  And while both actors are charismatic, I strangely felt more for Deneuve's Marion, who is a criminal in the sense of being an accomplice to an earlier murder - which the detective that pops up mentions (GOD, what a nuissance! I kid) - before he meets his own demise.  Like a B-paperback book, there's some good twists and turns, but strangely, I was expecting more.  I was feeling manipulated by Truffaut's technique, which was good, but only up to a certain point.  I find it perplexing to describe what I mean but, take it like this: a guy is trying to have his way with a girl, he keeps trying, but then she stands firm, and he backs down.  Realistic?  Maybe.  Does it work dramatically?  Perhaps.  But where else will the drama go?  Is it all happily-ever-after out in the snow?

I get the romanticism angle of the piece, but it clashes oddly with the first half of the film, which is more of a standard but technically interesting pot-boiler (the shots and cuts as Belmondo drives a car early on are really fun to watch, as is the opening credits sequence over newspaper clippings, and other shots like Julie's face on cigarettes can be mildly captivating).  But other things don't add up as well just with the plot that Truffaut puts by the wayside: Julie's sister, who collaborates with Louis to get a detective in the first place, disappears from the movie; how a certain body is discovered is rather ludicrous, even for a movie based on a short story/paperback/what-have-you; some decisions with money, even for dumb movie characters, can be stupid.

"Do NOT fall asleep mid-take again, Jean-Paul!"
What Truffaut gambles on, I think, and is partially paid off, is that his stars will carry and imbue the narrative with a certain spark.  And he's right, up to a point.  I enjoyed seeing these two play off one another, and certainly Deneuve is so beautiful - maybe TOO beautiful for a kind of old-school 'femme fatale' as she may (or may not) be in the scope of the story - that it makes sense how hard Louis falls for her.  Belmondo is... just Belmondo I guess, though I kept having a slight nagging feeling: didn't I see this character before, and better and more idiosyncratic, in Godard's own lovers-on-the-run saga Pierrot le fou?  Maybe Truffaut's film is a little homage to that as well, as some but not all of his stylistic decisions could be more unconventional-fucking-with-you Godard than playful-but-amusing Truffaut (the difference of the Beatles and the Stones in other words).  This is all well and good, but sadly, for the stars involved and the locales and solid camerawork, Mississippi Mermaid is ultimately minor, okay work from a director that did better.

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