Resisting the Mississippi Mermaid: READING Truffaut’s “NEW WAVE” Through AS Resisting Hollywood Cinema

 

I.  Intro - thesis

 

            Mississippi Mermaid, the title of Truffaut’s 1969 “film policier” or “film noir” refers to American Cinema. In the film an imposter mail order bride, Julie Roussel, arrives at a cigarette plantation in La Reunion, an island off Africa. The owner, Louis Mahé, discovers she has murdered the real bride. She seduces him however and he runs off with her to the Swiss border, not before having killed the detective, Comolli, whom he had hired to look for her, and having been poisoned by Julie- Marianne, and then loved by her. The film received mediocre reviews, but we can turn it into a pretty good film if we do some detective work on our own. By looking at the “homages” to the detective genre, Renoir, and Cocteau, along with the politics of the French New wave we can see the film as a political statement to give more power to the new cinema art against the traditions of 19th Century art, and maybe make some generalizations about human rights and desires, and rebellion in general.

 

II.  Film noir as a genre

 

            As a detective genre film, a “film policier,” and a “film noir,” it is pretty routine. There’s the pursuit of the false mail-order bride, the mystery of what happened to the real one, and the story of the hero’s fall into a life of murder and deceit as he forsakes law and order of his past wealthy life for the “siren-mermaid” who lures him into the reefs. The detective genre gives way to the “film noir” genre, a Hollywood genre in the 40s and 50s where normal people get caught in the trap of  the corrupt social order. For example in Double Indemnity, insurance man Fred McMurray is seduced into murdering Barbara Stanwyck’s husband. In the film noir crime and crime detection are metaphors of the corruption all over our lives. The French had their “poetic realism” films of the 30s (Pepe le Moke of Duvivier, Quai des brumes and Le jour se lève of Michel Carné), but seemed to be fascinated with the film noir genre after World War II. Truffaut’s film does not seem to have the moral theme of the poetic realism films that showed the real effects of poverty on the classes that could only use crime or the lottery to pull themselves out. The “realism” swallowed the “poetry” out of these people and the films portrayed this with contrasts of light and darkness.

 

III. French New Wave and Truffaut’s film

 

            Truffaut’s Mermaid-Sirène  takes on more intensity if we view the Siren as a metaphor of American cinema and its lure to the newer filmmakers of the French New Wave in the 50s and 60s. The New Wave’s home base was the review Cahiers du cinema edited by André Bazin who encourage viewers to consider the film as an art with its own “written” style. (Alexandre Astruc was another theorist who influenced the New wave with his “cinema stylo” idea. The French New Wave preferred “mise-en-scène” over “montage” or editing. Rather than the manipulated cutting of say an Eisenstein film that guided the viewers what to think, the New Wave preferred more concentration on the setting with longer takes and the use of deep space or deep focus.  This method allows viewers to see more reality and to bring in their own ideologies to the film. Mise en scène is more democratic. It is more concerned with “viewers rights” which can be transferred to the political scene as well. The New Wave, especially Truffaut also started the idea of “auteur.” The real writer of the film is the director. In his famous article in the Cahiers, “A Certain tendancy in French Cinema,” Truffaut called for filmmakers to use more cinematic properties in telling their stories and not to use literary masterpieces as models (cinema du papa). Film is not for telling stories told by great writers, but to be used to tell new stories in a cinematic way. The film noir genre is a suitable one for this new art which plays on light and shadow and also now has equipment to enable shooting on location. In his 1960 Jules et Jim Truffaut tells a “regular” story about marriage and alternative set-ups with a World war I background.  Mississippi Mermaid  is more of a “homage” film to the film noir, Jean Renoir and Jean Cocteau. These “homages” show that the film comes from various cinema traditions, not literary ones.

 

IV. Homage to Renoir and the Popular Front of the 30s

 

            The film is dedicated to Jean Renoir, a rebel in his own right against the traditional painting of his father.  The opening shots are from Renoir’s Marseillaise. The film is about everyday Marseillaise people who form a battalion, like other communities-communes and march to Paris to kick the royalty out of Versailles Palace. They then march out of Paris and defeat the oncoming Prussian Army at Valmy. The film is a great metaphor for solving inner psychological problems and then facing outward to struggle against foes in the exterior world. The common Marseillaise people find their liberty as real subjects and start a long search for political subjectivity that is still going on. The union they formed with the Versailles Palace Guard is the inspiration for the name of the island “La Réunion” where Louis Mahé has his cigarette plantation in Truffaut’s film. In Renoir’s film, 1935, the reunion is a metaphor of the Popular Front of Socialist and Communist Parties against the Conservative right wing in France. Truffaut’s film can be about the French new Wave’s popular front against old movie making of literary masterpieces and propaganda for new filmmaking. 

 

V. Popular Front against American Cinema and American New Wave of the 60s and early 70s.

 

            Even in Renoir’s heyday of the 30s, America cinema was considered the “siren” that French culture officials rallied against. They tried to lure French filmmakers into making films of “quality” and to resist the attraction of merely importing American films. But, my mother in law, a young moviegoer of the 30s  said that nobody listened. They all went to see Spencer Tracy. They couldn’t resist, and neither could Truffaut.

 

            What is exactly the Mississippi Mermaid though in regard to American films? Is it the Classic Hollywood genre that is successful, but really meant for twelve year olds? Jerome Charyn, a novelist and cinema studies person, suggests that it is the later. In an interview in the Nouvel Observatueur, he talks about Hollywood’s “New Wave” in the late 60s with films like Easy Rider, The Wild Bunch, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Bonnie and Clyde, Godfather II, Taxi Driver, and Chinatown. These films by the new “auteurs” Hopper, Altman, Scorsese, and Coppola  were answers to the “sappy” “My Fair Lady” type blockbusters. They were answers to a public that wanted films about the darker struggle in life. Hollywood eventually wins out as “Jaws” brought back the “polished” spectacle. The French New Wave used “b” movie format because the “b” movie or “second feature” in the 40s and 50s was the film of average guys. A rebel type film. The “mermaid” is either American fluffy cinema or American “b” movie cinema exemplified in the “film Noir” genre.

 

VI.  Mississippi Mermaid as metaphor of French New Wave

 

1.B Movies

 

            The mail order bride in this film is American cinema in the “film noir-detective  genre of Howard hawks and Alfred Hitchcock. In this film, Catherine Deneuve as Marianne Vergana kills the real mail order bride Julie Roussel destined for Louis Mahé, and takes her place. (I got it – the real Julie Roussel was Hollywood fluff, while the new Julie is American “b” cinema made by the outcasts and rebels ??). Marianne seduces Louis into turning his accounts into her name. He starts to doubt her identity when her tastes don’t match what she said in her letters. We viewers know that she is duplicitous, but cannot warn Louis. When Louis cannot find her at home, he drives to the bank with a “flashforward sound track dialogue of the bank teller revealing that the accounts were cleaned out.It is a “packed” scene showing that his anxieties have been realized. Anxieties seem to work in complex compound time and this sequence reveals it well. The novel as genre could not do it as well. It is a dominant cinema property.

 

            Louis and Berthe, the sister of the dead Julie, hire a detective, Comolli, who is intrigued by the case and will follow it to the end. His name is that of Jean-Louis Comolli, a film critic of the Cahiers du cinema, the home base for the French New Wave. In one article, Comolli did a “Socrates” job on “deep space.” The New Wave, influenced by Jean Renoir, liked deep space and deep focus because it allowed for more “reality” in a shot. It allowed for a more democratic view of the scene. Comolli questioned this rationale saying any film method can dupe us into seeing what it wants. Our beliefs are somewhat suspended in the filmmaker’s diegetic world. In the film, Comolli does find the the Siren Julie-Marianne and Louis in Lyon, but Louis shoots him because he is now in love with the Mississippi Mermaid and wants to protect her. Is Comolli killed by Louis, or by Truffaut for having questioned the “deep focus” method of the likes of Renoir, Wilder, and Bazin?

 

            2. The heritage of the New Wave – Renoir and the politics of the average person

 

            Comolli also interrupted Louis who was about to see Arizona Jim. The name comes from a fictional character made up by another character in Renoir’s The Crime of Monsieur Lange. In that film, Lange worked in a publishing house by day, but wrote romance westerns at night. When his unscrupulous swindling boss bankrupts the company with dirty deals trying to promote detective fiction that failed to attract an audience, the workers form a cooperative/union and turn the company into a success by selling the Arizona Jim westerns. The boss returns, but Lange shoots him in an effort to save the cooperative. Lange is on the border being tried by his peers in a hotel. They will let him go.

 

            Louis kills Comoli to protect his new life, and to be able to see films like Arizona Jim. Even the new Julie likes Arizona Jim, and is not at all upset that Louis has done in Comoli. Louis then sells his cigarette plantation to accommodate Julie’s lifestyle. They lose the money in a getaway, and he takes up reading Balzac’s Skin of Sadness at a border hide-away. (That novel recounted Balzac’s miseries at trying to be a writer in his early years. This film is also about the miseries of trying to make movies in a Hollywood world.) She poisons him, but then has a change-of-heart and returns to nurse him back to health. The film ends as they trudge to the Swiss border in freedom.

 

            Renoir’s Grande Illusion ended in a similar snowy mountain ambiguous scene. In this POW film, Renoir shows the illusions of war being between countries and ideologies. Real war is between the social classes. The German and French aristocrats are closer to each other than they are to their own lower  bourgeois class compatriots. The “Jew” and the “mechanic” are in the last scene escaping across the snowy border. Will they find freedom or be swallowed up like ants? This film was really propaganda of the Popular Front of the 30s, the union of socialists and communists against the French right wing.

 

            Mississippi Mermaid  is a propaganda film for the French New Wave to continue to make new films., and to raise the status of cinema, and to get it away from the “literary” and “Hollywood” type of “A” or good selling fluff cinema. Truffaut will let himself be seduced by the “film noir” and detective genres of America. He will use these “B” stories and raise them to higher entertainment and political levels.

 

            3. The heritage of the New wave  - Cocteau and Orpheus and his blood

 

            After Julie’s disappearance with all the money, Louis suffers a breakdown, and is cured at the “Heurtebise Clinic.” This is the name of Jean Cocteau’s angel in Orpheus. Heurteebise appears in many of Cocteau’s works as an “angel” who helps the writer put out works. When Julie says she can change and become a good domestic spouse, Louis challenges her to “astonish him.” “Etonne-moi” was the same challenge Diaghilev, the Russian ballet impresario,  gave to Cocteau when Cocteau wanted advice on how to be a good writer. Cocteau surprised the world by using cinema to portray his poetry.”To write without being a writer” is Orpheus’s definition of a poet to the tribunal in hell. Cocteau is one of Truffaut’s angels. He owes Cocteau and other pioneer auteurs. He is seduced by the fairly new cinema art, but does not reject any film genre no matter how facile it may appear. Any use of film can tell us how we see ourselves and our world.

 

 

 

VII  French New Wave and “Little” History

              Renoir’s Marseillaise is about revolutions of common people taking up big political battles formerly in the hands of hero type people. Truffaut’s revolution likewise started young filmmakers using cinema writing tools against the “cinema du papa” where literature was the primary source.

 

In Thee Story of Adele H, 1975, Truffaut gives a voice to the forgotten daugheter of Victor Hugo. True to the code of the New Wave, he neglects the big literary figure whose name is associated with some big films ( Hunchback, Les Misérables) to give attention to the poor daughter who was not able to realize her own romantic journal in real life. Truffaut made a film of her journal and letters where she tried to make a cavalry officer her husband, by chasing him to Halifax and the Barbados. Truffaut brings attention to her frustrated dreams, her feelings of inadequacy compared to her father, her loss of her drowned sister, and the jealousy of her father’s love for the drowned sister. She does not receive the famous funeral her father had, but neither does her father receive film treatment from Truffaut, who prefers the realexiled. Truffaut’s film is his version of “Villequieurs” (the famous funeral lament poem of Hugo to his daughter Leopoldine) to Adele.

 

VIII. Conclusions on the “siren”

 

In a recent issue of Le nouvel observateur honoring Pierre Bourdieu, the sociologist is cited warning the media people to be wary of the “siren” that they are using. Maybe we should take Truffaut’s attitude. Let’s give in full steam to the “siren,” but at the same time be conscious of what it is doing. Truffaut’s Louis has no illusions about his Mississippi Mermaid, and he follows her anyway. As we drown we will get a better picture of where and who we are. What are the political stakes? We have to transfer Truffaut’s use of cinema to the political scene. The bourgeois against the aristocrats, the new cinema against the old arts, son and daughter against father, us against the heroes. These writers in the current media are the new Orpheuses who write without writing. They surprise us a lot.