directed by Claude Chabrol
directed by François Truffaut
Chabrol continues the New Wave interest in forcing movies to reveal the nature of human behavior by manipulating dramatic and social conventions. Typically combining once familiar genres–the heist comedy and the romantic adventure–Chabrol causes viewers to reconsider their responses. His ease at showing the hidden psychology of Victor (Michel Serrault) and Betty (Isabelle Huppert), con artists/companions who travel from Switzerland to France to Guadeloupe chasing not-so-fast money, results in a bemused testing of confidential relations. It’s a French thing. Mississippi Mermaid works the same way: Truffaut turns the Hitchcockian mystery between colonial tobacco farmer Louis (Jean-Paul Belmondo) and his mail-order bride
Marion (Catherine Deneuve) into a philosophical rumination on obsessive love.
Such old-fashioned investigations are the only ones that matter, so you may have to intentionally shift out of Stepmom and You’ve Got Mail mode to appreciate the way these films work. Chabrol and Truffaut are not event-oriented; they affect the narrative complications and satisfactions of genre films but their substance is emotional, sexual–which in New Wave terms means visual. Chabrol’s two-shots capture Victor and Betty in casual affection even as they pass each other as “strangers” in a hotel corridor; Truffaut moves in on a mirror reflection of Louis and Marion, in murderous face-off, yet demonstrates their compulsive attraction. Violating the Hollywood commitment to plot and meaningless suspense, Chabrol and Truffaut
get inside intimacy. Revealing specific star personalities gets them closer to understanding basic, scary character.
The Swindle pays subtle homage to Ernst Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise, following the way Herbert Marshall and Miriam Hopkins, the con artists/lovers of that movie, used elaborate thefts as sexual metaphors, disguising their personal dependencies with the wit and icy sophistication of Continental grifters. Victor and Betty’s May-December relationship is never clearly stated: They could be lovers, teacher and pupil or father and daughter. (When exasperated or tickled she ambiguously calls him “Daddy.”) After fleecing a Swiss lawnmower salesman, Betty insists on a vacation away from Victor, causing him to worry about her loyalty; but when she initiates a new con that includes her romantic involvement with a younger con artist (François Cluzet), Victor’s senior-citizen insecurities resemble lovers’ jealousy.
Chabrol keeps their relationship off-balance and mysterious even while the con game grows complicated and dangerous; m,/lmoney’s the objective but ambiguity’s the point. Victor and Betty move through worlds of various social feints and ruses: gossipy conventioneers, a compassionate souvlaki salesman in Paris, a lovelorn widow, a cynical African businessman. David Mamet’s pointless strategies in The Spanish Prisoner weren’t nearly as convincing–or logical. Mamet stopped flipping the script of his own con artist movie just as he approached the nature of greed, but Chabrol keeps teasing the audience by teasing Victor and Betty’s fidelity (“I’m not perverse, I’ve frivolous,” she chirps) and threatening it.
Victor and Betty step out of their league into the kind of big-time, multinational conspiracies Mamet fancies. But this is where Chabrol’s mastery surfaces. Threatened with imminent violence, Victor and Betty face mortality that changes the effect of even a relatively trivial conceit. The Swindle shifts from genre parody indistinguishable from Sacha Guitry’s Le Roman d’un Tricheur to a requisitely modern confrontation with cruelty. It’s Tarantino territory. A brutal gangster (Jean Benguigui) politely invites Victor and Betty to a torture session while the Mirella Freni-Placido Domingo recording of Tosca plays on the stereo. “I adore this version, it’s very intense!” says the crossed-eyed, opera-loving hulk.
If French art-cinema weren’t so out of favor with contemporary American moviegoers, Chabrol’s intentional mix of operatic violence with genre-movie tension would be the preoccupation
of critics and audiences. Victor and Betty’s comic poise in the face of death answers Tarantino’s facile, postmodern irony. But it may be an answer the zeitgeist doesn’t want because it rearranges audience response from jokey reflex back to old-fashioned shock. The few people who saw Jackie Brown will realize in The Swindle exactly what was missing from Tarantino’s
slow-paced carnival. Unlike Chabrol’s fondness for Trouble in Paradise, Tarantino could only emulate what was obvious and shallow in Foxy Brown and Coffy. He couldn’t imagine Pam Grier’s love for anyone, which deprived the film of the very emotional substance–vibrant affection between two people–that makes The Swindle remarkable even as it drifts toward
Before the current reissue of Mississippi Mermaid, most Americans viewers regarded the film as a vague effort in the long stretch between Truffaut’s masterpiece Jules and Jim and his rejuvenation with The Wild Child. The misunderstanding came from 13 various minutes cut out to pare the film down for American viewers (despite the thriving audience for foreign-language films in the late 60s). Those deletions–now restored–turn out to have been crucial, especially for a film that departs more than usual from generic convention. Mississippi
Mermaid was one of Truffaut’s Hitchcock experiments, like The Bride Wore Black, but not nearly so banal, having worked out most of his film-buff infatuation with “suspense” in that film and his legendary interview book Hitchcock/Truffaut. With this movie Truffaut deliberately dissipates the false tension of crime-and-punishment and follows the subtler meaning of such key Hitchcock films as Suspicion and Marnie, finding material to satisfy a French poet’s interest in neurotic drives.
In fact, Mississippi Mermaid gives the impression of a road movie more than anything: Belmondo and Deneuve on the road of life as Louis chases Marion through France and they move together from small towns to a wintry forest. Their trajectory recalls both Godard’s Breathless and Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player–quintessential experiments combining American genre with modern French romanticism. Truffaut went back to the fundamental expressions of the New Wave, reconsidering film’s relationship to life–the first battle and the continuing battle especially as 90s film culture becomes more involved with escapism, promoting the tendency to view movies as fun and fantasy unrelated to the real, political world.
As Louis stands at the pier on Reunion Island off Africa’s east coast waiting for his bride to arrive by ship, the parade of Third World passengers signals his fear of rejection while placing his fantasy in a world remote from the West’s white Hollywood fantasy (though consistent with Sternberg’s esoteric, spiritual Dietrich movies). When Marion eventually appears–different from her love-letter descriptions, carrying a bird in a cage–her disruption has an up-to-date frisson. What’s off (beyond her inconsistent biographical details) seems psychically off, and Louis, the solipsistic colonial, seems compelled to his fate. This romance, evoking a world of distress and isolation, will not be the stuff of simplistic dreams. When Louis discovers Marion’s deception–her thievery and murderous, criminal past–he still loves her and his tragic compulsion darkens the movie as Truffaut explores love’s depths and difficulty.
With greater drive than Chabrol ever displayed, Truffaut wrecks the superficial structure of genre movies, adhering to his characters’ passions. That’s why he’s the superior artist. Mississippi Mermaid is not the great work Two English Girls was discovered to be when finally shown here in a complete version–it was a pell-mell submersion into romantic fatalism–but this is the road Truffaut took there and to such masterpieces of tragic obsession as The Story of Adele H. and The Green Room (the roots of each appear, respectively, in Marion’s fitful sleeping scene and Louis’ desolate realization of his fate through an artful abstraction).
Historically, Mississippi Mermaid also demonstrates Truffaut’s reaction to Jean-Luc Godard’s more ruthlessly analytical and convulsively romantic Pierrot le Fou; he virtually reconceives Belmondo’s role in that film as a more passive romantic obsessive. It suits Truffaut’s sensibility, as does recasting Deneuve in the Anna Karina part. He keeps the doomed-to-love pairing dynamic. (That’s also due to sensibility; good actors though Serrault and Huppert are, Chabrol rarely highlights the glamour of personality.) Truffaut shows off Hollywood’s idealization of lovers–Belmondo’s lips and Deneuve topless–but moves from the mythic to the philosophical. That old X track “The World’s a Mess (It’s in My Kiss)” suggests how Truffaut develops Godard’s theme of romantic alienation into a more obviously personalized dilemma. While Pierrot le Fou addressed a confused world, Mississippi Mermaid internalizes the distress. Louis and Marion struggle with their feelings, their inexact compatibility, and this observation (recently revisited in Andre Techine’s Les Voleurs) makes the movie powerful.
Though less concise than Truffaut’s best films, Mississippi Mermaid’s exploration of romance is candid enough to feel modern, urgent. It’s outrageous that the best scenes–the moments that make the film unforgettable–are the restored scenes: When Louis describes Marion’s face to her (while Deneuve looks back at him in a perfect portrait), Truffaut is obviously riffing on the lover’s inventory that begins Godard’s Contempt but the tone emphasizes Marion’s impact on Louis that gives the film the same insight into subjective obsession that made Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar a New Wave favorite. Marion has several scenes displaying her carnality–sprawling wantonly before a stranger and then confessing her true feelings about Louis to a breakable vinyl record recalling the young man’s declaration of love as a pop thing in Godard’s Masculine Feminine. (Compare this to the phonographic records in Jackie Brown that link Pam Grier to Robert Forster yet still keep them distanced. That’s less a fact of American pop culture–black or white–than of Tarantino’s inability to understand what in art genuinely
moves people. It’s why his imitation of New Wave conventions corrupts the New Wave’s humanist convictions.)
All Mississippi Mermaid’s “new” scenes contribute to an atmosphere of romantic desperation and cinematic continuity–that’s what enabled the artists of the New Wave to matter and keep the art form they lived for fresh and sincere. Of the great filmmakers to have passed on, none is missed more than François Truffaut, whose humor and romanticism provided constant surprise and passionate engagement. No other New Wave director could match Truffaut’s common touch and that, essentially, is what’s missing from today’s film buff culture–it’s also why even a pleasant film like The Swindle seems remote and irrelevant to a world desensitized by Tarantino and Nora Ephron.
This revival and restoration of Mississippi Mermaid means much more to film culture than the alternate version of Touch of Evil (though it’s less likely to be as highly praised). Mississippi Mermaid belonged to its culture and its time but still speaks to ours. A vibrant part of the New Wave’s artistic discourse, its final shot of Belmondo and Deneuve approaching their destiny in the snow reaches back to Shoot the Piano Player and All That Heaven Allows while it also forecast McCabe & Mrs. Miller. Bringing back this tenuous, trenchant love story doesn’t congratulate hindsight; it confirms what movies can do.