The difference between late-60s Godard and late-60s Truffaut, two names who are inextricably linked via early 60s French cinema and Cahiers du Cinema, is astounding. Godard, as I mentioned in my last post, starts to go further into Maoism, anti-narratives, and essay filmmaking by 1967. 1967 finds his equally famous counterpart just post-Ray Bradbury adaptation, and a few films from this thriller.
The names alone – huge stars at the time Jean-Paul Belmondo and Catherine Deneuve – should be evidence enough that Truffaut’s cinema is working towards a more mainstream style. The part-Vertigo story follows the meeting between cigarette magnate Louis Mahe (Belmondo) and his newspaper-correspondence-bride Julie Roussel (Deneuve). They meet, he finds out she’s not who he thinks she is, she disappears, he hires a private eye, etc.
Something about Mississippi Mermaid reminds me of an Altman film, particularly McCabe and Mrs. Miller. A lot is the aesthetics. Truffaut does squeeze in some of his 400 Blows-stylistics (the stray freeze frame, for example), but much is composed in wide shots, emphasizing empty spaces, and with subtle zooms. The end, as the couple disappear in a snowy landscape, is not as poetically nihilistic as the end of the Altman film, but it is pictorially similar, and the mood of unknown isolation is shared between the two.
It’s much easier to describe a Godard film from this era than a Truffaut. Why is that? I think, for one, it’s because Godard’s cinema is so full of oddball moments and break-the-fourth-wall scenes that any given sequence can be notable for something that is clearly at odds with other, more traditional (and popular) types of film. Truffaut’s films, on the other hand, are much more classically styled. This narrative is full of exposition and a story that clicks along – within the first 15 minutes we meet both protagonists, get as much backstory as is necessary, and begin to suspect Roussel of something nefarious. So, aside from the long shots and zooms…how then to talk about, or describe Truffaut’s film? And how to do it without referencing other filmmakers?
Well, for one, it’s a film that values romanticism above all else. Truffaut’s direction to his actors, particularly Deneuve, who essentially plays two parts, seems to be a cool distance, offset by moments of quick and abrupt passion. There’s very little of what we might find from our actors in another similar type of thriller – squinty eyes, sneaking around. Take for example, a scene where Mahe finds Roussel in her hotel room. He has a gun on her. Any other filmmaker might shoot this in a much more elaborate way, so as to maximize the suspense: close-up on the gun, close-up on Belmondo. Maybe a dolly in to him as he grapples with his decision, and then of course, some kind of inflected shot as he realizes he cannot shoot her. Truffaut handles this much differently – he keeps it entirely in a wide 2-shot. This might be ridiculous – and a mistake – were this film to be about the thriller mechanics but, as we gradually learn, it’s not. And so shooting this coolly and distanced ultimately feels right – it’s about their relationship and not who’s going to kill whom. Belmondo and Deneuve both play this scene beautifully. His face shows tension, but more relief. Her’s shows no fear and instead acceptance. It all meshes together perfectly.
SPOILER here. That’s why, towards the end, another moment that perhaps should be far more dramatic than it is doesn’t feel outlandish. Mahe and Roussel (now called Marion Vergano) are on the lam and in a lone cabin amidst a snowy landscape. Though the camera hints at it briefly, we aren’t really told that she is slowly beginning to poison him by slipping rat poison into his tea. He figures it out. This should be the big moment when she comes in, he tells her he knows, she runs or yells or tries to shoot him, they have it out, blah blah blah. No:
She comes in, he tells her he knows…and she laments her decision immediately. He forgives her…and they leave together. It’s so strange. And at first laughable. But upon reflection of the entire narrative, it really makes sense. They’ve been “poisoning” each other the whole time – she lies to him, he threatens her, she accuses him, he suspects her. So, by the time we get to this moment, we should actually expect it to come to nothing more than their odd love for one another. And again, Truffaut shoots most of this from a distance, allowing the actors to handle their business uninterrupted.