Catherine Deneuve as Julie in Mississippi Mermaid. Courtesy of United Artist's Corporation

Find it at 5th Ave.: Mississippi Mermaid

This week’s film showcases a classic of French New Wave Cinema

Find It At 5th Ave. is a recurring column that reviews, previews and explores running and upcoming films at PSU’s independent movie theater, 5th Avenue Cinema.


5th Avenue Cinema will be screening the 1969 film Mississippi Mermaid this upcoming weekend. Created by the legendary French director François Truffaut, Mississippi Mermaid is about Louis (Jean-Paul Hunsaker) and Julie (Catherine Deneuve) who meet through the personals column of a French newspaper. After exchanging letters for some time, the two decide to skip straight to marriage without ever having met in person. Upon her arrival on his plantation, he discovers that she had been sending false photos of herself, and she discovers that he had been hiding his wealth—each aiming to ensure the other’s sincerity. The film follows them as they go through with their marriage despite the mutual deception. 


But did they make the right decision? You only have one weekend to find out—and it may be your only opportunity to see Mississippi Mermaid in 35mm ever!


The film was chosen for screening by cinephile and francophile Genevieve Hunsaker, a Portland State film major. Hunsaker said she liked watching Belmondo and Deneuve—both held in high esteem in French cinema—in anything they’ve been in. 


“He [Louis] gets wrapped up in this crime and mystery,” she said. “And they do kind of fall in love—so there’s that conflict.”


Hunsaker said that almost anyone, regardless of taste, can find something to enjoy with Mississippi Mermaid


“It has the conventional crime drama, but it also has a little more of the arty, arthouse, cinephile feel because it’s French New Wave,” she explained. 


According to Hunsaker, the French New Wave was a cinematic movement that took place in the late ‘50s, distinguished by its rejection of conventional and traditional filmmaking techniques and its fondness for experimentation. 


“They were really into American cinema, but also saw how artificial and scripted Hollywood was,” she said. “The French New Wave is kind of poking at the conventions of cinema and playing with them.”


Directors such as Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard—who created Breathless, a film that marked the beginning of the movement—were the heralds of the French New Wave. Hunsaker said that these films had imaginative, new elements like fourth wall breaks and jumbled story lines where directors would explore new possibilities and experiment with self-awareness. 


“In general, I think it’s a fun movement and one of the first cinematic movements that people hear about and get into—that’s what it was for me,” Hunsaker said. 


Watching these films helped her realize that movies are not so absolute, and that there are different categories—including cultures and time periods—that contribute to the overall aesthetic of a film.


Although the French New Wave took place in the late ‘50s, contemporary French films have not withdrawn from its attributes. 


“It’s definitely been folded into cinema, in general,” Hunsaker said. “I think the theories behind what they were doing with their films have definitely become embedded into modern French cinema.” 


For modern viewers, this means that Mississippi Mermaid offers a window into how modern cinema became what it is today. 


Hunsaker described one of her favorite scenes from Mississippi Mermaid as a classic example of Truffaut’s personal style: a woman sitting in front of a vanity mirror while a man comes up behind her and draws his gun. The composition, in addition to the colors and decor of the room, create a very pleasant and complementary visual, Hunsaker said.


“I feel like it sums up a lot of the French New Wave theme,” Hunsaker said. “Godard says ‘all you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun.’”


She said that viewers who like crime dramas are bound to like this one, especially because it’s a little different, although anyone with an interest in film history or arthouse movies in general is bound to find something to love. 


“There are a lot of French films that take themselves way too seriously,” Hunsaker added. “But this one in particular does not have an air of pretentiousness.” 

Mississippi Mermaid will play at 5th Avenue Cinema from April 22-24.