‘La Marseilles’ in ‘Mississippi Mermaid’

As is well known, François Trufffaut was a movie critic before becoming a director; not surprisingly, many of his films were informed by other films. This was definitely true of The Bride Wore Black (1968) and Mississippi Mermaid (1969), both heavily influenced by one of Truffaut’s favorite directors, Alfred Hitchcock. (In the early ’60s, the two directors met for a series of interviews that became the classic book Hitchcock/Truffaut.)

The Hitchcock influences in Mississippi Mermaid are certainly evident: the suspense story revolving around deception and uncertain identity, the beautiful and possibly treacherous icy blonde (Catherine Deneuve), the Psycho-esque staircase murder. But the film has another influence as well, Truffaut’s favorite French director, Jean Renoir (1894-1979), to whom it is dedicated. Having two such different household gods (Renoir the humanist, Hitchcock the manipulator of audience reaction and emotion) leaves the movie a little schizophrenic. In fact, the suspense story is pretty much dispensed with after the first forty minutes or so, and the rest of the film is a tale of descent and obsession that’s more reminiscent of, I don’t know, Theodore Dreiser.

The movie-in-movie takes place right after the opening credits, when a narrator (uncredited, but I’m guessing it’s Truffaut) tells the history of Réunion, the French-owned island off the coast of Africa where the early part of the film takes place. And all of a sudden, there’s a substantial clip from Renoir’s 1938 docudrama La Marseilles, showing the historical incident from which the island took its name.

The clip represents a first for this blog: a movie containing a segment from another movie that isn’t watched by the first movie’s characters, but rather is just inserted.

However, the characters in Mississippi Mermaid do watch movies. (We just don’t see them doing it.) At one point, the tobacco plantation owner played by Jean-Paul Belmondo announces his attention to do so; asked what he will be seeing, he replies “Arizona Jim.” That’s a reference to Renoir’s 1936 The Crime of Monsieur Lange, in which a character writes westerns featuring a cowboy of that name. Later Belmondo and Deneuve are seen leaving a cinema where they’ve just seen Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar (1954). The movie was a favorite of Truffaut and his auteur critical school, and, on leaving, the characters agree that it’s not a typical western and “really very good.”

Photo credit: filmsinfilms.com

Truffaut couldn’t resist one more reference to his mentor. On the wall to the left is a poster for The Elusive Corporal (1962) which proved to be Renoir’s final feature film.

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