Women on Top


The 13 minutes that have been restored to François Truffaut’s Mississippi Mermaid do nothing to improve one of the director’s weakest films. Made in 1969, it was Truffaut’s first big-budget production, shot on the lush Indian Ocean island of Reunion, in the south of France, and in the French Alps. The film is lovely to look at, especially in its tropical-paradise opening section, but the narrative is unconvincing, and, for a film about lovers on the run, strangely inert.

Mississippi Mermaid was made during Truffaut’s most blatantly Hitchcockian period and is largely a remake of Vertigo with Catherine Deneuve and Jean-Paul Belmondo in the Kim Novak and James Stewart roles. The direct source material, however, was not Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac’s Dentre les Morts, which inspired Vertigo, but “Siren of the Mississippi,” a short story by Cornell Woolrich, who also wrote the stories from which Hitchcock adapted Rear Window and Truffaut adapted The Bride Wore Black (the film that preceded Mississippi Mermaid).

Hitchcock is not the only direct influence on Mississipi Mermaid. We must also factor in Jean Renoir (to whom the film is dedicated) and Truffaut’s New Wave rival Jean-Luc Godard, whose 1966 Pierrot le fou starred Belmondo in almost the same role he plays for Truffaut— a conventional,
upper-middle-class guy whose passion for a beautiful, enigmatic woman destroys them both.

The problem is that Truffaut runs a sorry fourth to these directors when it comes to depicting the guilt and anger that are the psychosexual underpinnings of l’amour fou. He came close in Jules and Jim, and closer still in The Soft Skin, but in those two films he was working with actresses— Jeanne Moreau and François Dorleac— whose eroticism was virtually director-proof.

Deneuve does not project that kind of sexual electricity, although one can imagine that she could have stitched together the chilly narcissism she displayed in The Umbrellas of
with the murderous psychopathology of Repulsion and come up with a compelling femme fatale. Instead, Truffaut seems to have directed her to emulate Kim Novak’s lobotomized Madeleine in Vertigo. But what made Novak so fascinating to watch was that she didn’t seem like a woman pretending to be someone she wasn’t as much as she seemed like a man in drag. Hitchcock played up Novak’s size and lowered her alto to a breathy tenor.
The effect was memorably perverse. Deneuve, on the other hand, walks through Mississippi Mermaid as if she were a suburban housewife on downers. If Belmondo seems unmoved by her chiseled features and occasionally bared breast, it’s not surprising.

To summarize the unwieldy narrative: Wealthy tobacco factory owner Louis Durand (Belmondo) marries his mail-order bride, Julie Roussel (Deneuve), who arrives on the island of Reunion via a boat named the Mississippi (hence the film’s title). Durand disavows the obvious discrepancies between the Julie he holds in his arms as if she were a new puppy and the woman with whom he had exchanged many letters. But when Julie absconds with the Durand family fortune (which the besotted husband recklessly had placed in a joint account), Louis and the sister of the real Julie hire a private detective to track down the thief and possible murderess.

The plot becomes increasingly convoluted, as Truffaut shies away from the sadomasochistic dynamic that should form the core of the story. Louis has a nervous breakdown and is confined to a psychiatric clinic in Marseille. While watching the local news, Louis spies a scantily clad Julie working as a hostess in a new club on the Riviera. He lies in wait for her in her hotel room (lit just like the hotel room in Vertigo with a greenish glow from an exterior neon sign). Confronted by Louis, Julie, whose real name is Marion, takes the opposite tack from that of Vertigo‘s Madeleine, whose real name turned out to be Judy. She confesses everything, including helping her lover, the evil Robert who masterminded the whole scheme, throw the real Julie off the Mississippi to her death. This confession neither angers nor disgusts Louis. Instead, it reinspires his love. The rest of the film is a speculation on what might have happened to the lovers in Vertigo if Judy hadn’t fallen conveniently from the bell tower.

Once Truffaut leaves Hitchcock behind, he doesn’t have a clue about how to put the devolution of this kind of love-hate relationship on the screen. The film becomes so incoherent and leaden that even the ever-changing landscape fails to make much of an impression. I’d love to blame the film’s failure on the butchery performed by the original American distributor, but this director’s cut proves the fault is Truffaut’s own.

If artful filmmaking is no guarantee of success (and Mississippi Mermaid is nothing if not artful), artless filmmaking doesn’t necessitate failure, especially when the artlessness is appropriate to the subject matter. Kevin Smith’s Clerks is a consciously artless film, as is Sarah Jacobson’s Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore, which is something of a grrrls version of Clerks.

Jacobson, who makes up in integrity what she lacks in subtlety, opens her film with a sex scene so homely that it might make you want to flee the theater. Jane (Lisa Gerstein), the film’s heroine, who’s nicknamed Mary Jane by her boss, is losing her virginity to a local Romeo. The camera is overhead and focused on the guy’s pumping buttocks. Eventually, Jane’s wails of pain irritate her opportunistic partner so much that he rolls off her and onto his back. Thus, both bodies are revealed fully and frontally in a state of utter dejection. It’s not a pretty sight.

Jane is a high-school senior, a smart, outspoken, sexually curious, Jewish teen who’s an outcast in her Midwest, aggressively Christian, suburban high school. To escape this repressive environment, she works part-time in an
indie-movie theater where the rest of the staff are mostly alcoholic drop-outs in their early twenties trying to make it in various neo-punk bands. Though they treat Jane sometimes as a mascot, sometimes as a whipping post, she’s admirably unflappable. Jane knows what she wants from them— knowledge about sex and about what the bonds between men and women are made of.

The film is structured largely as a series of conversations between Jane and her various coworkers, shot in single takes and ending with blackouts. (Jacobson has no flair for conventional narrative editing. Whenever she inserts a close-up or a cutaway, the film falls apart.) As these conversations accumulate, they reveal not only Jane, but a half-dozen other characters in surprising complexity. For all its crudity, Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore resembles one of Eric Rohmer’s moral tales. Jacobson’s militant feminism, combined with her generosity toward both male and female characters, makes the film not only intelligent but refreshingly subversive.