Catherine Deneuve graces this year’s poster for the Cannes Film Festival and in its honour, we are revisiting François Truffaut’s La Sirène du Mississippi (1969). It was the first time when François Truffaut depicted a genuine couple. “In Jules and Jim and in The Soft Skin, scenes involving two people are always presented with reference to a third figure, to someone who is not there. In this film, when the man and the woman are in harmony, or when they hurt each other, it arises solely from within themselves. There is no second man, no second woman, and I was thus able to focus exclusively on the intimacy between a couple. It is the story of the deterioration of a passion, brought about by love.”
The film was based on William Irish’s novel Waltz into Darkness, but Truffaut changed the location (from New Orleans to the island of Réunion), because he wanted to shoot in French and because he felt he had to bring it to contemporary times, when gender roles had begun to interplay, and 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 were much more understandable, regardless of their flaws and mistakes, things were not black and white anymore. “What appealed to me about Waltz into Darkness was the fact that, in it, William Irish dealt with a subject that had been traditional in cinema before the War. It is found in The Woman and the Puppet, The Blue Angel, La Chienne… 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. I said to myself: it has to be done… And then, I realised that I could not do it. […] 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 not entirely a victim. What used to be black and white has now become gray. Therefore, in spite of myself, I reduced the contrasts between the characters, at the risk of downplaying the dramatic quality of the subject.”
Mississippi Mermaid is ultimately a love story. The story of a man and a woman who weren’t supposed to end up together, but they do nonetheless. Louis Mahé (Jean-Paul Belmondo) is a tobacco plant owner on Réunion Island. He is looking for a wife and has placed an add in the newspaper, but the woman who shows up, Julie Roussel / Marion Vergano (Catherine Deneuve), is not the one who accepted his proposal. But he becomes enraptured with her and marries her anyway. It’s the subject most dear to Truffaut, a study of love in the form of a thriller, a study of a couple, of real characters in intense situations, which makes them react in a genuine way. What Truffaut did keep from Irish’s novel was the construction of the story, a linear narration punctuated by the appearances, disappearances and reappearances of the main characters, which allowed him to build the relationship between Belmondo and Deneuve with precision.
At the time of its release, La Sirène du Mississippi was poorly received, and Truffaut attributed it to the difficulty he had in 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 Belmondo as “a young girl who was expecting everything from marriage”, a rich but naïve man, trusting and indifferent to his wealth, still a boy who, when he marries, becomes a man, finally learning about life. And in Catherine, Truffaut saw “a boy, a hoodlum who’d been through hard times”. Deneuve’s Marion is an orphan, a prostitute, accomplice to murder and attempts murder. She is streetwise, cynical, an usurper. And yet, “I’m not really bad,” Marion tells Louis when he finds her working in a club after running away with his money. “I still love you.” He believes her.
Truffaut wanted Belmondo and Deneuve for a reason, not because of their star status and public image. “Jean-Paul Belmondo, along with Jean-Pierre Léaud, is my favourite actor. […] Finally, and because he is the most complete actor in Europe, Belmondo has alternated between three characters during his career: one who descends from Sganarelle; one who is inspired by the heroes of American gangster films; and one who could be the son of Gabin in La Bête Humaine. It is this third possibility that I asked him to explore by drawing on his seriousness, which allowed him to say the lines in which he expresses love as well. As far as Catherine Deneuve was concerned, it was impossible not to think of her. Indeed, her role in The Mermaid brings together various aspects of her that we have been able to see recently. I think that many girls who have had a difficult adolescence will recognise themselves in the antisocial character she plays in Mississippi Mermaid.” Marion is tough and resilient, having had to learn the hardships of life from early on, from her rough landing in reality as an orphan child.
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. “You put on a cold face, but inside you’re smiling,” Louis tells her. 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 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.
“I only know your wife from the picture you gave me in Réunion. Surprisingly, whenever I describe her, the symmetry of her features, the transparency of her skin and her hair… people who’ve met her always remember her. Gentlemen really prefer blondes,” Michel Bouquet’s Comolli, the detective that Louis Mahé hired to find his wife, dryly concludes.
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 immortalised 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 that 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.
Marion (showing Louis the coat in a shop window): “It’s quite a coat. But actually it’s really more for Paris.”
Louis: “It may be too far out.”
Marion: “Nothing is too far out for Paris.”
The eccentric ostrich feather collar could easily cause Marion to be spotted by the police. When the cops arrive at 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,” Truffaut confessed. The ending, shot in the snow, near Grenoble, was a final indirect homage to Renoir. Mississippi Mermaid was dedicated to him. “You remember the snow into which Deneuve and Belmondo sink – it evokes this recollection of a frontier to cross, of freedom nearby: one could almost say that, as at the end of La Grande Illusion, they are arriving in Switzerland at this point. But there were also allusions to Pierrot le Fou, The Blue Angel, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, The Naked Jungle, Balzac…”
Truffaut’s pure love for cinema encounters the dark atmosphere of the thriller and the complexity of human relationships. In a Snow White allusion, Marion is carrying out in cold blood the poisoning of Louis. She is again wearing black, just like in any other sequence in the film when her dark and conflicted inner side resurfaces. But Louis loves her despite her wrong doings. And she finally yields to that and to her own love for him. “It is the story of the deterioration of a passion, brought about by love.” Truffaut said of Renoir that he never made a mistake as a filmmaker because he always found solutions based on simplicity – human solutions. Truffaut, as if in an act of faithfulness to his idol, found the most human solution of all to his film.
Editorial sources: Truffaut on Cinema, compiled by Anne Gillain / François Truffaut at Work, by Carole Le Berre / The Films in My Life, by François Truffaut / Yves Saint Laurent, published by Foundation Pierre Bergé Yves Saint Laurent
This piece is published courtesy of classiq.me