In La sirène du Mississipi (1969), François Truffaut’s film that paid homage to Alfred Hitchcock and was dedicated to Jean Renoir, Louis Mahé (Jean-Paul Belmondo) is a wealthy tobacco plantation owner on Reunion Island, in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Africa, who has been using the classifieds to find a wife. When Julie (Catherine Deneuve) arrives on the island, it’s quite apparent that she’s not the one he’s been corresponding with, but he falls in love with this beautiful and mysterious woman, and marries her anyway. Louis soon finds out the truth and the film takes a completely different turn.
François Truffaut ulteriorly felt that both leading actors had been miscast (the audiences could not accept an “innocent” Belmondo, neither could they believe in a “corrupt” Deneuve), to which he attributed the poor receiving of his film. Catherine Deneuve, in an interview for Film Comment, sustained the idea that Mississippi Mermaid was more a film for her than for her co-star. However, I liked seeing both Catherine and Jean-Paul in these roles, first because I think they did very good jobs, and secondly, because I am against actors being typecast. Another element that I found interesting was that this is an unusual noir. Truffaut, my favourite French New Wave director, skillfully steered away from the cinematic trappings of the genre, approaching a new direction. The film is also an exploration of loneliness and love, and of the couple relationship, a recurrent theme in the director’s work, and the ending, suggesting an uncertain future, is very much Truffaut-style too.
And, finally, Catherine Deneuve’s wardrobe designed by Yves Saint Laurent, is another good enough reason to like the movie, which bears the designer’s sartorial stamp. Some of her outfits were part of the Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche Spring-Summer 1968 collection. “Of all the major couturiers, he is the biggest cinephile; he understood what film costumes were supposed to be and was able to conceive them in a way that could be adapted to different movements and styles,” Truffaut said of the designer.
The first act of the film takes place on the island and the clothes perfectly fit the exotic scene. The designer made great use of his safari styles. Above, a mini-dress version of the safari jacket, reminiscent of the iconic deep lace-up neckline design Saint Laurent had created in 1968, which was immortalized by Veruschka in a series of photographs by Franco Rubartelli. The colour is different, pale pink instead of beige, and there are no patch pockets with flaps on this one.
Below, Catherine in a safari skirt suit. The jacket respects the sketch of the designer’s first safari jacket, from his Spring/Summer 1967 haute couture collection. I love how it is accessorised with the colourful scarf on the head in the first photo, and also with the straw hat with the leather band in the following ones.
There are also sundresses: a flowy patterned one in pastel shades, with ruffled details and bell sleeves, and a lovely little white lace dress. And there is the trapeze-skirt wedding gown, with simple neckline and short sleeves.
In the second act of the film, set in a few locations in France, like Aix-en-Provence and Lyon, Catherine’s wardrobe is just as simple, with clothes that denote the practicality the designer’s creations came to embody: a sleeveless sack dress (that creates a youthful look worn atop a turtleneck pullover), pleated skirt with white shirt and tie, knitted cardigan, a floppy-neckline blouse with a wraparound skirt, and a trench coat. The type of essential pieces which Yves Saint Laurent encouraged women to build their wardrobes around.
The knitted robe noire with see-through sleeves is the item Catherine wears in the last scenes. First paired with long black boots and a trench coat, it is eventually worn with a black feathered coat – the most ornate item in her wardrobe, contrasting with the rest of her outfits, but which makes perfect sense if we analyse its link to the plot.
photos: stills from the film, captured by me from the DVD available in this François Truffaut collection
sources: François Truffaut: The Complete Films, by Robert Ingram and Paul Duncan, and Yves St Laurent, by Farid Chenoune