The Bride Wore Black and Mississippi Mermaid Blu-rays Review: Truffaut Does Hitchcock

For much of his career, Alfred Hitchcock was not taken seriously by the critical establishment. His films were hugely successful, and he was extraordinarily famous, but most critics dismissed his film as entertaining, but without depth. French critics writing for the Cahiers du Cinéma in the 1960s, however, loved him. Critic turned director François Truffaut recalls that one day at a press junket for Jules & Jim (1962) a journalist asked him about his love for Hitchcock and the director went into a passionate defense of Rear Window. This led Truffaut on a mission to convince the world of Hitchcock’s genius. He invited the director to a series of interviews where they would discuss, in-depth, all of Hitchcock’s films he’d made up until that time. The interviews were recorded and in 1966 it was released as a book entitled Hitchcock/Truffaut. It is a fantastic book and is one of the most influential books on film ever written.

Truffaut went on to make a number of films that paid homage to Hitchcock and Kino Lorber is set to release two of them, The Bride Wore Black (1968) and Mississippi Mermaid (1969), this month. While both films are clearly influenced by Hitchcock, they are not direct homages or complete copies of his films, plots, or style. Truffaut has put his undeniable stamp on them as well.

The Bride Wore Black is the most obvious Hitchcockian. A woman (Jeanne Moreau) seeks revenge on the five men responsible for the death of her husband on their wedding day. One by one, she finds them and kills them. But where Hitchcock would have relished in the details of each murder. He would have set each one up as a large suspense setpiece, building tension around whether or not each man would survive. He would have kept the identity of the killer a secret to create mystery. Truffaut allows the deaths to happen matter-of-factly, without any real suspense or tension built around them. He’s much more interested in the characters and building little scenarios around their lives.

In one scene, Julie (Moreau) sends the wife of Morane (Michel Lonsdale), one of her intended victims, a telegram stating that her mother is ill. Once the wife is gone, Julie appears at the door pretending to be their son’s teacher. She says she knows the wife is away and that she’s there to help. She cooks dinner, cleans up a little, and puts the young boy to bed. She even makes up a story as to why the son doesn’t recognize her and emphasizes over and over again that her name is that of his teacher. She is there for hours before she locks Morane in a cupboard and seals him in to suffocate. When the boy is asked by the police who killed his father, he only knows her name, which is, of course, his teacher’s name.

In another scene, she poses as a model who desires to pose for Fergus (Charles Denner), a great artist. She convinces him to let her pose and spends several days in his company. She never once hints at who she really is or what her real purpose is. We see him flirt with her, dress and pose her, and discuss his personal life. All the while, she smiles contentedly. Then she shoots him with an arrow. It happens so fast and lasts such a short time if you were to get up to get a drink, you’d miss the entirety of the action.

Mississippi Mermaid begins as a very Hitchcockian mystery and then wanders into a romantic drama between two people who both love and loathe each other. Louis Mahé (Jean-Paul Belmondo) is a rich tobacco plantation owner on the small island of Réunion just off the coast of Southern Africa. Unlucky at love, he begins a correspondence with a woman through a personal ad. As the film begins, he has proposed to her and awaits her arrival from France on the boat Mississippi.

At first, it seems like she did not come but just as he is preparing to leave, she appears. Looking nothing like the picture she sent, Julie (Catherine Deneuve) explains that she was afraid to send a real picture of herself and instead sent a photo of her friend. She hopes he doesn’t mind. As they pull up to his large mansion, he explains that he too was not entirely honest. He is not just a foreman on the plantation, in fact, he owns it. He hopes she can forgive him.

It is at this point I laughed and turned to my wife and said, “only in a French film can a woman who looks like Catherine Deneuve apologize for her beauty and a rich man apologize for his wealth.”

Almost immediately, we realize that something is amiss. Julie is not exactly who she says she is. We see her meet and then fight with a man when she shouldn’t know anyone on the island. When Louis tells his banker to allow Julie to withdraw money from both his personal and business accounts, we know things are going to go bad.

For, perhaps, half of the film’s runtime, things behave like a Hitchcockian thriller. Julie’s identity is a great mystery. Who she is and what she is doing are filled with intrigue. But then, as if Truffaut has become bored with his own scenario, he lays it all out about halfway through the film. Louis accepts who she is and the two run away together. There are hints of suspense here and there but mostly the story becomes about these two lovers. Two people who are completely in love and yet also terrible together. At every turn, they lie and cheat. Louis fears Julie is going to leave him, or hurt him, or kill him. Julie constantly thinks about leaving him, or hurting him, or killing him.

There are other Hitchcockian touches besides the plot. Truffaut’s use of real locations mimics the Master of Suspense, especially in how those locations help inform the plot like the isolated, wintry cabin that nearly becomes Julie and Louis’ tomb in Mississippi Mermaid or how Julie uses her victim’s settings as a means of how she murders them. Truffaut’s use of the camera and the way it moves is often similar to how Hitchcock used his. For The Bride Wore Black, Truffaut even used one of Hitchcock’s favorite composers, Bernard Herrman. to write the score.

This blending of Hitchcock’s film styles with Truffaut’s doesn’t always work. Both films are quite good, but there is something slightly off about them as well. Hitchcock was a master of not only suspense but of technique. His films were meticulously crafted. Truffaut’s films tend to be a little sloppier, and a little more spontaneous. Truffaut’s best films are deeply personal and very funny. These two films are often humorous, but they don’t feel at all personal. The end result is two films that are unable to be wholly successful as a Hitchcockian homage or a true Truffaut film.

Extras for both The Bride Wore Black and Mississippi Mermaid include an audio commentary with film historians Julie Kirgo, Steven C. Smith, and Nick Redman, and a set of trailers for other Kino Lorber films.

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Mat Brewster

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