Mississippi Mermaid

Oct 13, 1999 at 12:00 am

François Truffaut’s The Wild Child (1970) was made at the end of a decade of experimentation, of attempts by the director to infuse various genres with his unique blend of melancholy humanism and fatalistic romance. By 1969, Truffaut, who had a restless imagination and was rarely satisfied with his films, decided it was time to wipe the slate clean, to make a film that was simple, basic and direct. The result was a unique entry in his oeuvre, an austere period piece docudrama with the director himself in one of the leading roles.

Based on the true story of "the savage of Aveyron" (first documented in 1806), The Wild Child tells of a 10-year-old boy (Jean-Pierre Cargol), apparently abandoned by his parents as an infant and eventually discovered living like an animal in the woods by a group of hunters. The "savage" soon comes to the attention of a certain Doctor Itard (Truffaut) who is convinced he can civilize the beast.

Truffaut wasn’t much of an actor, but he’s perfect for the part of the dogged physician, a rigorously methodical product of the Enlightenment who approaches his task as a puzzle that reason can unlock. The viewer may feel dubious about the slow taming of the child – some elusive grace seems to be lost in the process – but not surprisingly Truffaut saw it as a love story, with the doctor using the full force of his intellect to bring the youngster into the embracing fold of his fellow beings.

The director returned to the nonfiction period piece for a second and final time with The Story of Adele H. (1975), which was also a return to one of his favorite themes, obsessive and destructive love. Adele H. (Isabelle Adjani), who was the daughter of Victor Hugo, had become enthralled with a British army lieutenant (Bruce Robinson) and in 1863, when the film opens, has traveled all the way to Halifax, Nova Scotia to be with him. It’s quickly apparent that the soldier is not interested in Adele and that she is a little crazy.

The crux of the film is the progress of Adele’s madness, the way it deepens and turns inward until she’s wandering the streets like a ghost, muttering to herself, oblivious. But Truffaut’s approach is not psychological – it’s never suggested that Adele is schizophrenic or in need of a good dose of anti-depressants. Rather, she’s consumed by love, which becomes an idée fixe more real to her than her original object of desire – there’s a haunting scene near the end when the lieutenant decides to confront her on the street and she no longer recognizes him.

Adele H., like most of the post-Wild Child films, reflects a new maturity on the part of the director. It’s as if he no longer felt the urge to indulge in what the writer James Monaco has referred to as "Truffaut’s explosion of genres." Of course, some of those earlier "explosions" were pretty damn good – but sometimes, as with Mississippi Mermaid (1969), they led to a confusion of intent. Adapted from a novel by Cornell Woolrich, this tale of a man (Jean-Paul Belmondo) with an obsessive love for his duplicitous mail-order bride (Catherine Deneuve) seems meandering – though always watchable – mainly because Woolrich’s clammy nihilism is light years away from Truffaut’s lovelorn sensibilities.

By comparison Truffaut’s final film, Confidentially Yours (1982), another noir adaptation, is a smooth entertainment with a consistently engaging tone. Many have bemoaned the fact that the director’s swan song was a seemingly tossed-off trifle, but it seems a fitting farewell, a black-and-white homage to the sort of American film that so many of the New Wave auteurists championed back when more conventional critics scoffed.

The plot is twisty, as a secretary (Fanny Ardant) tries to clear her perhaps wrongly accused boss (Jean-Louis Trintignant) of first one, then two, three and finally four murders. Despite its multiple homicides, it’s a good-humored film and when the diminutive Trintignant advances on the larger-than-life Ardant, you’re never certain which one is in peril. That they eventually become lovers is inevitable – they’re terribly ill-suited, just the kind of pair that interested Truffaut the most.

Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].