DVD: I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing (1987)

May 24, 2018 | By

Film: Very Good

Transfer:  Excellent

Extras: Good

Label:  Alliance

Region: 1 (NTSC)

Released:  2004

Genre:  Comedy / Drama / Fantasy

Synopsis: Part fantasy and coming-of-age tale of a socially awkward but talented photographer becoming smitten with a glamorous art gallery curator.

Special Features:  Audio commentary with writer-director Patricia Rozema.




As Patricia Rozema recalls in her commentary track for the Miramax & Alliance DVD, she never expected her feature-length directorial debut to become a critically lauded work locally and abroad, but her tale of a young woman’s attraction to her boss and the worth of creative energy has enough heart and whimsy that it evolved over a relatively short time into a Canadian classic – a not undeserved branding for the 81 min. film which was restored in 2017 for theatrical play.

Made for $300,000, the literature major wasn’t a novice to film, having made two prior shorts, Passion: A Letter in 16mm (1985) and Urban Menace (1986). Her instincts to create a narrative that isn’t reliant on any standard structure nor adhere to visual conventions makes Mermaids still quite refreshing.

Reportedly inspired by T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” flaky Polly Vandersma (Sheila McCarthy) applies for and is surprisingly awarded the position of secretary to Church Gallery owner Gabrielle (Paule Baillargeon), and in spite of her less than ideal grammar, clerical skills, and intense social awkwardness, Polly remains employed, perhaps endearing herself to Gabrielle for accepting any challenge within and outside of work, including dinner with her boss (whom she dubs ‘the Curator’) at a formal Japanese restaurant.

As Polly’s interest in her boss develops, an old flame returns to see if Gabrielle still harbours strong feelings. Mary Joseph (Ann-Marie MacDonald) is herself a creative force, and she represents the unafraid soul which Gabrielle is hesitant to follow, hence her self-restricted role as curator, arbitrator, presenter, and promoter of talent, spanning painting, conceptual and multi-media art.

Unbeknownst to either is Polly’s natural gift for photography – informal portraits, slices of street life, and hidden places & moments – which Rozema shows in classic 1980s music montages, although each sequence shows the genuine joy and thrill Polly experiences scoping the environment for images with her Kodak rangefinder.

Also woven into the loose, dreamy narrative is Polly’s ‘daydreaming’ vignettes, which in B&W show her scaling a skyscraper, flying over Toronto, and pondering life by the striking Scarborough Bluffs. These sequences are bracketed by confessional moments where Polly initially opens up about herself to a video camera, but soon narrates the events which build towards the film’s climax, and a pivotal unmasking. (The revelation of who authored Gabrielle’s secret cache of paintings is a bit muddy, but it follows the wrap-up in which the three women come to a peace, and Rozema closes with a shot that’s part ‘daydreaming’ and fantasy.)

McCarthy is wonderful in her first feature role, having worked her way through CanCon ilk like The Littlest Hobo (1984), and takes a role that could’ve been played as an airhead and elevates Polly to a lovable dreamer. Her awkwardness is painful to watch when she’s being discretely belittled in a post-party scene, but hysterical in the aforementioned Japanese dinner scene, with fine moments of physical comedy as Gabrielle watches her secretary fail completely at sitting, ordering, and eating.

Baillargeon underplays Gabrielle as an emotionally secure but semi-formal woman, and although Mary is able to change her ex-lover’s demeanor, there’s still a reluctance to loosen; only in her gallery does Gabrielle feel at ease, whether with clients or artists.

The value of art isn’t an overt theme in Rozema’s script, but it begins to resonate when Polly sees Gabrielle’s ‘golden’ painting (a glowing bright square that forces us to apply whatever judgment we feel towards the art), as well as Polly’s own effort to seek validation when she sends an anonymous sampling of her photography to her boss. Gabrielle’s cold rejection is hurtful, but Mary’s interest in a saved photo supports the truism that art and skill don’t always stem from formal training nor an intense commitment. Polly’s adventuring into the city streets and neighbouring green belts are identical to dedicating a block of time each day to exploring and bettering, and Polly’s apartment, with walls covered in stills and developing gear in the bathroom, show she’s not a flake when it comes to being moved by and capturing small moments in her surroundings.

Rozema’s use of Toronto as itself must have been a nice surprise for 1987 audiences used to seeing its urban areas as Any City, U.S.A.: the golden Royal Bank Plaza, the Scarborough Bluffs, the Eaton Centre, and more unique is Polly’s ride in a vintage Peter Witt streetcar, which the TTC retired in 1965. Rozema’s aesthetics and the cinematography by Douglas Koch (Last Night, Bollywood/Hollywood) also make the city look good, vibrating with people, cars, colours, skyscrapers, and classic row houses, with the CN Tower  looking just lovely in a framed background.

Mermaids was originally shot on 16mm, and likely blown up to 35mm for theatrical exhibition, and it seems the 2004 DVD uses a 1.66:1 matted version of the print which feels a little tight; the most noticeable moment is Polly’s head, which is unseen before she sits down in the Japanese restaurant. It’s still a good transfer, but the ideal is the original 16mm negative, at full frame, for a future Blu-ray edition. (Rozema doesn’t specify the film’s ideal aspect ratio, but she infers the film could be / was shown in different ratios.)

Rozema’s commentary covers the full production plus thoughts on characters, motivations, and her own aesthetics, and in a 2018 Q&A that preceded a screening at the Revue Cinema for National Canadian Film Day, she offered additional thoughts on a film that established her steady career 31 years ago. (An edited audio recording is available via KQEK.com’s Google Play, iTunes, and Libsyn channels.)

As important as Mermaids is to queer cinema, Canadian and independent film, it’s unavailability on disc is a classic problem for CanCon fans wanting to own the best possible version of the country’s cinema history. It is available online via Encore+, but streaming isn’t the same as owning.

Rozema’s next feature was the ill-fated White Room (1990), but she bounced back with When Night Is Falling (1995) and Mansfield Park (1999). McCarthy has appeared in countless TV series as a performer and voice actress, but her best-known work remains Die Hard 2 (1990) and the TV series Little Mosque on the Prairie (2007-2012). Baillargeon has acted, written, and directed films, and MacDonald also became an author and later host of CBC Doc Zone.

Mark Korven’s debut score is very assured, and supports the film’s whimsy and Polly’s dramatic arc from office and social klutz to being emotionally wounded when her attempt at validation runs into Gabrielle’s arctic chill and dismissal. Korven’s best-known work is the sci-fi classic Cube (1997) and the occult shocker The Witch (2015).



© 2018 Mark R. Hasan





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