Catherine Deneuve and Jean-Paul Belmondo in La sirène du Mississipi (1969)

MISSISSIPPI MERMAID (Sirène du Mississipi, La)

(director/writer: Francois Truffaut; screenwriter: William Irish’s novel “Waltz into Darkness”; cinematographer: Denys Clerval; editor: Agnes Guillemot; music: Antoine Duhamel; cast: Louis Mahe (Jean-Paul Belmondo), Julie Roussel/Marion Vergano (Catherine Deneuve), Michel Bouquet (Comolli), Berthe (Nelly Borgeaud), Landlady (Martine Ferriere), Jardine (Marcel Berbert); Runtime: 123; MPAA Rating: PG; producers: Marcel Berbert/Francois Truffaut; United Artists; 1969-France-in French with English subtitles)
“This perverse love story just doesn’t fly.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

An outrageous attempt to get at Hitchcock (very much like Vertigo) in this pulp fiction romantic thriller directed and written by Francois Truffaut (“Bed & Board”/”Jules and Jim”/”The Wild Child”). It’s based on the story by writer Cornell Woolrich (William Irish) called Waltz into Darkness, the same author of Rear Window. It switches locations from the book’s America to Africa and Europe.

Louis Mahé (Jean-Paul Belmondo) is a 38-year-old wealthy tobacco plantation/factory owner on the African island of of Réunion. He marries his attractive twentysomething mail-order bride, Julie Roussel (Catherine Deneuve), who arrives on the island via a boat named the Mississippi Mermaid (hence the film’s title). They quickly marry despite her lame story that she sent her sister’s photo because she felt uncomfortable sending her own. One day the bride runs away after stealing a fortune from his bank account. Louis meets his real mail-order bride’s sister Berthe Roussel (Nelly Borgeaud) and now knows for certain he married a scam artist impostor. Together the victims hire a private detective, Comolli (Michel Bouquet), to track down the impostor and find Berthe’s sister.

En route by plane to holiday in Nice, Louis is suddenly taken ill and placed in a sanitarium. While watching TV he sees Julie dancing at the raunchy Phoenix nightclub in Antibes. Instead of informing the police or his private detective, Louis goes there intent on killing her. But when he sees her again, he realizes he’s hopelessly in love with her and buys into her story that her ruthless gangster boyfriend Richard cooked up the scheme on the boat when they met the real Julie and thereby killed Julie dumping her body overboard; after the moll went through with the con the gangster stole the stolen money from her and split. She tells Louis her real name is Marion Vergano and that she was raised as an orphan and led a troubled life that included a stretch in prison. Louis forgives Marion and they live together, hoping to live on his plantation income. But in Aix-en-Provence their brief happiness is interrupted by a visit from Comolli, who has learned of Julie’s murder and will not drop the murder case. This leads the deranged Louis to kill him, sell his plantation at half value to his business manager Jardine and go on the run from Lyon to the Swiss Alps when the cops track him down. But Marion is upset that Louis left the bag of money in their apartment, where the cops found the dead private detective and spitefully poisons him in their hideaway ski chalet. While in pain Louis recognizes that Marion poisoned him, but forgives her. If this is love, then I’m Snow White!

This perverse love story just doesn’t fly. The two leads play unsympathetic characters and instead of getting into their character’s heads they both play it as a game. It comes off as a disturbing film that seems pointless and has questionable entertainment value. It’s one of the few misfires from the talented Truffaut, even with the restored 13 minutes missing from its American release that supposedly makes the film more lucid.