Fashion & Film Feature

François Truffaut’s Heroines: Part II

Catherine Deneuve and Jean Paul Belmondo in ”La sirène du Mississippi”, 1969 | Les Films du Carrosse, Les Productions Artistes Associés

Catherine Deneuve (Marion Vergano) in La sirène du Mississippi, 1969
François Truffaut attributed part of the failure of La Sirène du Mississippi (the film was poorly received) to the difficulty he had persuading the public to accept an actor like Jean Paul Belmondo in the role of a defeated, desperate man: “It’s not hard to understand what shocked the Western world. La Sirène shows a man who is weak (despite his looks) captivated by a woman who is strong (despite her appearance).” What did Truffaut do? He switched the male and female roles, imagining Catherine as “a boy, a hoodlum who’d been through hard times”, and Jean Paul as “a young girl who was expecting everything from marriage”. Catherine’s Marion is an orphan, a prostitute, accomplice to murder and attempts murder. She is streetwise, cynical, an usurper. Jean Paul’s Louis Mahé, a plantation owner on Reunion Island, is rich but naïve, trusting and indifferent to his wealth, still a boy.

The film was based on William Irish’s novel Waltz into Darkness, but Truffaut felt he had to bring it to contemporary times, precisely because gender roles had begun to interplay, and because the contrasts between the good and the bad were considerably reduced. The villain was not entirely bad and the victim wasn’t entirely good anymore, they are much more understandable; regardless of their flaws and mistakes, things were not black and white anymore, they had become grey. It is again a love story. The story of a man who marries a woman who is the exact opposite of what he was expecting. But he falls in love and accepts her as she is. At the same time, he becomes a man, finally learning about life. It’s again the subject most dear to Truffaut, because the film is less a thriller than a study of love, of a couple, of real characters in intense situations, which makes them react in a genuine way.

Beautiful and mysterious, hidden behind her opaqueness and inaccessibility, with her crisp, realistic acting, Catherine Deneuve’s femme fatale taps into that “paradox between the inner fire and the cool surface”, as Truffaut himself put it, categorization that defined Hitchcock’s blondes. In fact, throughout her entire career, Deneuve has not been afraid of taking complex roles that ruffled and darkened the surface of her beauty. Deneuve’s icy, mysterious cool blonde look would have been indeed perfect for an Alfred Hitchcock noir or thriller – Catherine reportedly admitted that she would have loved to make Marnie with Hitchcock. I like that Mississippi Mermaid is an unusual noir, capturing the dark spirit of classic noir and putting it into a setting that is rotting and tropical, the decaying colonial backdrop of Réunion Island.

Catherine is dressed in Yves Saint Laurent and some of her outfits were part of the Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche Spring-Summer 1968 collection. Catherine Deneuve “was the woman he was waiting for, the one who is his style”, the modern woman who saw beyond haute couture and embraced the times, life, the street wise, a new kind of luxury that had nothing to do with made-to-measure and everything to do with ready-to-wear. The first act of the film takes place on the island and the clothes perfectly fit the exotic scene. The designer made great use of his safari styles, like a mini-dress version of the safari jacket, reminiscent of the iconic deep lace-up neckline design Saint Laurent had created in 1968, which was immortalized by Veruschka in a series of photographs by Franco Rubartelli, or a safari skirt suit with a jacket that respects the sketch of the designer’s first safari jacket, from his Spring/Summer 1967 haute couture collection.

In the second act of the film, set in a few locations in France, like Aix-en-Provence and Lyon, Catherine’s wardrobe is just as simple, with clothes that denote the practicality the designer’s creations came to embody, but which nonetheless serve the plot beautifully. I am particularly speaking about the little black dress towards the end of the film, first worn with a trench coat and then with the black feathered Rive Gauche beau manteau, the most ornate wardrobe item in the entire film, a counterpoint between realism and the imagination, between the classical and the baroque. The eccentric ostrich feather collar could easily cause Marion to be spotted by the police. When the cops arrive in the apartment in Lyon and Marion and Louis have to try to recover the money they have left upstairs, Louis stops Marion because her coat could give her away. And she answers: “Are you crazy? What’s wrong with this coat?” They are as much lovers on the run as they are an ordinary married couple going about the little everyday life things. There’s Truffaut’s counterpoint between the ordinary and the extraordinary, between reality and fiction.

Of Yves Saint Laurent, François Truffaut said he was the greatest cinephile among the fashion designers. He “really understood what cinema costumes had to be like, and he designed them both for their movement and style. The little feather coat at the end, which caused me a lot of worry as far as its execution was concerned, thanks to him, turned out to be a character in the film” in that ending that was a final indirect homage to Renoir and his La grande illusion.

Brigitte Fossey and Charles Denner in ”L’Homme qui aimait les femmes”, 1977 | Les Films du Carrosse

Brigitte Fossey (Geneviève Bigey) in L’Homme qui aimait les femmes, 1977
I had to laugh when I read about The Man Who Loved Women being categorized as anti-feminist (it isn’t even worth mentioning where). Bertrand Morand is not a chauvinist, just as Truffaut’s film is not anti-feminist. “The immense sadness of films without women,” the director used to say. “I hate war films, except for the moment when the soldier takes out of his pocket the photo of a woman.” Truffaut said that he simply wanted to tell a story in L’Homme qui aimait les femmes. “This is a feminist film made after my fashion”.

He also wanted to investigate further the character of Ferguson that he and Charles Denner had created in 1968, in La Mariée étairen noir. Denner thus followed in the footsteps of Jean-Pierre Léaud, becoming another alter ego for Truffaut. The film-maker said he chose Denner because he had “a natural seriousness, he rarely smiles – he has something fierce, wild about him”. Bertrand Morane is a seducer. He is obsessed with women’s legs, he loves to see them walk, nothing is more beautiful to him than a woman in motion, because seeing her walk is seeing her walk into his world. His world is formed of women and it takes all these women to make up a world. “Bertrand is not however portrayed as the conventional womaniser. Truffaut makes no apology for him, he is not presented sympathetically,” concludes Robert Ingram in the book François Truffaut: The Complete Films. We see him as he is. “He is not arrogant, nor does he force his attention upon women,” Ingram continues.

He is the natural seducer, he does not idolatrize some women in the detriment of others. He generously recognises the attractive potential in every woman. They are all unique and irreplaceable. He is capable of traveling hundreds of kilometers to find an unknown woman he barely saw, as if his life depended on it. He is a loner, he has no family, no friends, he is happy in the company of women. And by responding to every look a woman gives him – the look of a married woman he sees in a restaurant, the look of a young woman who comes to the window with a book in her hand – he is confronted with his raison d’être. It is only this way, by responding to every woman, by delaying solitude, that he has the illusion of vitality.

“Who are all these women, and where are they going? Who are they meeting? (…) I will tell you the truth: they all want the same thing as me, they want love …” At the very end, at his funeral (he was badly injured when he was chasing a woman in the street, then died at the hospital falling from his bed while trying to look at the legs of a nurse – yes, Truffaut saw the humour in the tragic), Geneviève Bigey (Brigitte Fossey) says: “Bertrand looked for happiness in quantity, in the multitude.” She is the only one who got it right. Geneviève is the editor of the book he had written and which is about to be published, L’Homme qui aimait les femmes, which he wrote as a tribute to all the women in his life, because otherwise “I am afraid I will forget”. But maybe he is also afraid of him being forgotten if he doesn’t write the book. A book ensures its writer timelessness, too. And that’s where the idea of Truffaut’s alter ego comes in full play. “It was inevitable,” Truffaut said about the ending. “I was working on something that was mythic. You have to respect the law of myth.”

But let’s return to the character of Geneviève. She is the only one who is given enough screen time for us to be acquainted with her, we get to know what she does, what she likes. Even the costumes seem to be more carefully chosen for her: the elegant camel coat, the high boots, the knee-length skirts, the knitted cardigans. It’s like we are let in not only on her outer world, but on her inner world as well, and on a could-be relationship, could-be life together of the two. She is, after all, the one Bertrand gets to make plans with, only he doesn’t get to honour them because he dies. But, most importantly, she is the only one who has the exact intuition, and isn’t this saying a lot again about Truffaut’s female characters? The director gives the narrative control of the film to a woman.

Catherine Deneuve in ”Le dernier métro”, 1980 | Les Films du Carrosse, Sédif Productions

Catherine Deneuve (Marion Steiner) in Le dernier métro, 1980
In Le dernier métro (The Last Métro), Truffaut approached a subject he has never attempted before: the war and the Occupation. But this is not a political film, as this wasn’t in Truffaut’s nature, he wanted to focus on characters and feelings, especially characters in an exceptional atmosphere. The war is simply a background. This is once again an intimate study of a complicated love triangle. The idea of the film came to him and Suzanne Schiffman, his trusted collaborator, after reading Jean Marais’ autobiography and the memoirs of other actors from the period. He wanted to make a film about theater on the backdrop of the Occupation, a time when creativity flourished despite the tragedy in real life, a time when many theaters in Paris remained open and run by women, as is the case in Le dernier métro. “The world was living through a tragedy, but as far as artistic life was concerned, this was a great period, especially for theater. Television did not exist, people were living in solitude, cold, with restriction, anxiety. Theater could provide a rare form of escape.”

Lucas Steiner, a famous Jewish playwright and director of Montmartre Theater has supposedly fled Paris and his wife, Marion (Catherine Deneuve – she had the same name in Mississippi Mermaid), has taken over the theater business. She is also the star of the ensemble. Gérard Depardieu (Bernard Granger – Depardieu’s character in the following La femme d’a cote will also be named Bernard) is a talented young actor who is hired for the play Steiner has written and which now, in his absence, is staged by Jean-Loup Cottins (Jean Poiret). Both Deneuve and Depardieu embody sort of anti-heroes, compromising characters. They are human, more so, they are humans in harsh times, during the war, when people had to live with compromises, and for good reason. “I didn’t make a dark film, but I think that I am also speaking in it of the cruelty of everyday life. […] More than anything else, my film embodies a notion of compromise and tolerance. Instead, my characters have obsessions. They do not necessarily achieve their goals, but they keep on pursuing them nonetheless.”

Le dernier métro alludes not only to the curfew during the war and to the fact that Parisians had to make sure to catch the last metro home, but it’s also an illustration of the American slogan “The show must go on.” Serge Toubiana remarked how Truffaut considered that a film taking place during the Occupation should occur at night, in enclosed spaces, suggesting the idea of confinement, frustration, danger. They used an old factory as main set, a “studio” element rather unusual for Truffaut. But this did not take away from the authenticity and vitality of the story (great attention was given to the smallest of details, like, for example, to the music and the radio programmes of the time portraying a convincing image of everyday life in the 1940s) and it was the perfect backdrop for the enigmatic progression of the story and the rising tension in the third act (the historical events may not have been the central subject, but the film presents a complex and clever portrait of the time and the thin line between resistance and collaboration).

Truffaut wrote the role for Catherine Deneuve. “I was thinking of her natural authority, and also of her age: she is now thirty-five and it is time she give up playing young women with hair down to their shoulders. It was during the war and women began to manage theaters. […] Catherine Deneuve is both feminine and energetic, in a plausible way. I like the way that she always seems to project on the screen a double life: an apparent life, and a secret life. One gets the impression that she is keeping her thoughts to herself, and that her inner life is at least as important as her outer life.” In one of the sequences with her husband, the camera is placed somewhere above their heads and as she gets close to Lucas to kiss him, the camera zooms in on her hair, that perfectly coiffed blonde hair, and that camera movement reminded me of Hitchcock’s shot of Kim Novak in Vertigo. The double life.

François Truffaut recalled how Chanel No.5 was almost part of the character. At the beginning of the film, Marion is talking about how her husband came to know her, and says he has kidnapped her from the world of fashion and that he said that if she had refused, he would have asked Mademoiselle Chanel to fire her. Of course, Catherine Deneuve has been a model for Chanel No. 5 in the 1970s, and Truffaut knew how to make use of this social reality that actors have and that you can’t get around very easily. “All the roles that an actor has performed accumulate to give him or her an image that it is impossible to overcome entirely. It is better to go with it.” But the beauty of Catherine Deneuve in this film, as a woman torn between two men, is that she displays a humanity and versatility she rarely lets surface from her icy, enigmatic blonde beauty that consecrated her. In Truffaut’s film, the film that truly made her shine through, she is an actor, not a star, not an icon, and that’s his homage to her.

Gérard Depardieu and Fanny Ardant in ”La femme d’à côté”, 1981 | Les Films du Carrosse, TF1 Films Production

Fanny Ardant (Mathilde Bauchard) in La femme d’à côté, 1981
La femme d’à côté is one of my favourite Truffaut films, a beautifully composed film, stylized and harmonious, conceived by a film-maker in full possession of his craft. Truffaut wanted to bring a man and a woman who had loved each other in the past face to face, something he had been taking notes on, but, because he was a director who liked complications and detours and had a Hitchcock affinity, he wanted to do it in his own singular style. He went for the theme of “the conjugal thriller, a thriller without gangsters where the police remain in the background and the action is led from start to finish by the imagination of a woman.”

Fanny Ardant is Mathilde Bauchard and Gérard Depardieu is Bernard Coudray. He lives with his wife and son in a little provincial town near Grenoble, France. Mathilde moves with her husband next door. We soon find out that Mathilde and Bernard were lovers in the past, a relationship that ended bad. But soon after they meet again by chance as neighbors, Mathilde knows right away, before he does, that their encounter cannot remain innocent. She takes the reins, right to the end.

“I immediately spotted and appreciated in Fanny Ardant the qualities I most frequently look for in the protagonists of my films: vitality, courage, enthusiasm, humour, intensity but also, to counterbalance those, a taste of secrecy, a wild side, a touch of savagery and, above all, something vibrant. […] She reminds me of the Brontë sisters, she’s like all three Brontë sisters rolled into one.” For La femme d’à côté, her first movie role, he wanted her very beautiful, said William Lubtchansky, Truffaut’s cinematographer. Truffaut was worried that Fanny, tall and well-built, might appear too masculine, so they had to choose the costumes and hair styles very carefully. She is “the unintentional femme fatale”, says Véronique Silver, who played a crucial character in the film, one of those supporting roles that make a film come full circle, Madame Jouve. “There is a mystery about Fanny Ardant, in her smile and poise”. Gérard Depardieu recounted how he himself felt during filming, saying that he sensed that they were making a scary film about love, very Hitchcockian. That dangerous, permanent attraction neither of them can escape is felt throughout the film. Their tragedy is that they cannot love or suffer at the same time, but they can’t live apart either.

There is something different about Mathilde’s clothes, too, from the opening costume, the way she is filmed, from the back and from the feet up, in a grey suit that made me think again of Vertigo and Kim Novak, the trench coat, the white shirt, the two-piece looks, her clothes are definitely femme fatale, unlike Bernard’s wife’s (played by Michèle Baumgartner), which are more feminine, in floral patterns and very innocent. Truffaut wanted the two women to be very distinctive and had Michèle’s hair, a natural brunette, cut short and dyed blonde in order to seem more anchored in everyday life. Truffaut knew how to punctuate a scene not only through dialogue, but through details, too. In the most disturbing scene in the film, when Bernard becomes violent, an act of physical violence without precedent in Truffaut’s cinema, Mathilde is wearing a green dress. Commenting on the film, Véronique Silver jokes that “Green is a colour you shouldn’t wear, in theater is the colour of death.” It suggests both attraction and the potential for harm.

Towards the end of the film, when her husband brings her the clothes she had asked for before getting out of the hospital after her breakdown, Mathilde goes through them and picks the white blouse between the two in her suitcase, clearly underlying her choice: “This is the one I want.” The trench coat is also clearly stated out. It’s for the final sequence and, as in all great films noir, the end cannot be but one.


This piece is published courtesy of

Editorial sources: Truffaut on Cinema, compiled by Anne Gillain / François Truffaut at Work, by Carole Le Berre / François Truffaut, bãrbatul care iubea filmele, by Magda Mihãilescu / François Truffaut: The Complete Films, by Robert Ingram / The Films in My Life, by François Truffaut / Yves Saint Laurent, published by Foundation Pierre Bergé Yves Saint Laurent / audio commentaries with Serge Toubiana, Fanny Ardant, Gérard Depardieu and Véronique Silver on The François Truffaut Collection and The Adventures of Antoine Doinel, released by Artificial Eye / interview with Jacqueline Bisset for Film Talk

By Ada Pîrvu

Ada writes the blog Classiq, where she funnels her lifelong passion for cinema and her interest in fashion in film, of which she is a fervent proponent as one of cinema's most far-reaching influences. She is an optimistic by nature, but she hates forced happy endings. Maybe that’s why film noir is her favourite genre. She regards it as a prime contributor to restoring the balance disrupted by the traditional notion of a Hollywoodian happy ending.

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