Do the eyes of love see accurately? Should they? When Julie confesses to lying to Mahe at the beginning of Francois Truffaut's 1969 film Mississippi Mermaid (La sirène du Mississipi) he says he doesn't mind, in fact he finds it charming. But this is only the tip of an iceberg of lies in this fascinating film and also only the first hint of the love Mahe feels for deceptions. Beginning with a dedication to B movies and Jean Renoir, Truffaut's film arguably justifies both of those dedications but more than anything Mississippi Mermaid seems to me a commentary on Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo.
In the film's central scene, Catherine Deneuve's character, Julie/Marion, wears the signature hairstyle of Judy/Madeleine, Kim Novak's character from Vertigo. Set in a hotel room like the central, revelatory scenes of Vertigo, Truffaut doesn't bath the walls in green light the way Hitchcock does but the gorgeous Impressionist painting wallpaper, counterfeiting nature through an artist's perspective, reflects the role of fantasy, or delusion, in romance.
But the film could also be seen as a thematic sequel to Vertigo for how it follows up on some potential threads Vertigo left unexamined. It's after this central scene that Mississippi Mermaid enters new territory as Mahe (Jean-Paul Belmondo) becomes a willing accomplice and the two have an unstable relationship on the lam in France. Sometimes Mahe's sense of righteousness asserts itself in passive aggressive jabs at her, his anger not unreasonable considering, like Judy, she played a role in a murder, in this case the murder of a woman he knew and believed he loved. But what's love?
The real Julie, whom we never see, died before the events of the movie began, on a steamer called the Mississipi, on her way to Reunion, a small island east of Madagascar. Occupied by the French since the mid-17th century, Mahe shares a name with Mahe de La Bouronnais, an 18th century governor of the island. Since the movie was made during the middle of the Vietnam War, the clear allusions to French colonialism have a significant impact, particularly in how out of touch the colonialist dream turned out to be with reality. Or in how that dream was a destructive influence. Belmondo's Mahe fell in love with Julie through correspondence in which he told her he was a worker at a cigarette factory. In reality, he's the wealthy owner of a tobacco plantation--ironically, his attempt at deception was meant to prove his potential bride's honesty, but it's a deception Deneuve's character later gleefully tells him the real Julie saw through.
The fact that Deneuve's character turns out to be more beautiful than the picture Mahe has of Julie is more important to him than the suspicious fact that she looks like a completely different person, much as Scottie in Vertigo fails to identify the flaw in his own logic when he decides to accept the job of following Madaleine after he's seen how beautiful she is. Presumably there was real affection, though, between Mahe and the woman he exchanged letters with but since she knew more about him than he thought she did it's possible she was only manipulating him as Deneuve's character was. This is what Deneuve claims Julie was doing in that central hotel room scene.
She claims to have been honest about one thing, she was raised in an orphanage, and its from here she launches into a self-analysis and account that Judy never had a chance to give Scottie but which one might deduce from careful viewing of Vertigo. Marion (Deneuve) says, "When you get out of orphanage you're either brainwashed or rebellious. I threw myself into life. At fourteen I got my first high heels. A man bought them for me." Here the movie's dedication to B movies makes sense as she tells Mahe the pulp novels she read, and he scoffed at, were books she treasured because of how they reflected her life in ways other books didn't. Already from an early age, she's learning what men want from her and she's learning how to use it against them to get what she wants. You notice she doesn't say whether she was brainwashed or rebellious and it's a matter of opinion which she was by the time she and an unseen accomplice and mastermind named Richard orchestrated the job they pulled on Mahe.
The tragic note on which Vertigo ends is Judy arguing that she truly loved Scottie and him having the internal conflict over whether or not he loved her or only the dream of Madeleine. Mississippi Mermaid gives us the follow up relationship that might have been. Unlike Scottie trying to recreate Madeleine by controlling Judy's clothes and hair, Marion takes control in the latter half of Mississippi Mermaid, choosing a red sports car for the two of them despite Mahe's concern that it's too flashy, and in a reversal of the scene where Scottie carefully picks out Judy's clothes, Marion picks out a coat from a store window and wears it despite Mahe's concerns that it'll make her look suspicious. The relationship isn't smooth and there are moments where each, in turn, seems inclined to betray the other, each time leading to poignant reconciliations that seem tragic for the characters' awareness of how destructive they are to each other.
Both Deneuve and Belmondo are fantastic in the movie. Belmondo is quite a daredevil in it, too, as in one scene he quickly climbs up the side of a building and through the open window of that hotel room. I guess he certainly doesn't get vertigo.
Shot all on location in Reunion and France, and with impeccable costumes (I want every outfit Belmondo wears in this movie), Truffaut makes this intriguing story about love and artifice truly beautiful.
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We came by climbs distorted for the lake.
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About cigars we dialled smoke to take.
The biggest egg regrets the frequent stops.
The fingerprints were green in case of time.
In counting threads the scarf was mostly red.
On books suspended high above we climb.
The pages blur for raining words unsaid.
The pamphlets unexpected found were bliss.
In keeping poison up the apple taught.
From cheddar grounds we punctured jack for swiss.
In coats a turtle's neck was warmly bought.
The music of the screws fell in the pail.
A crumpled map revealed the paper tale.