I first became acquainted with the work of Patricia Rozema at a VIFF 2015 screening her standout post-apocalyptic thriller Into The Forest. A high concept sci-fi tale on the outset about two young women finding refuge in a remote cabin after the world’s electricity has mysteriously gone dark, the film handily stayed focused on a limited cast of characters and how they responded to their gradually decaying circumstances.
Rozema keeps a similarly focused scope on her debut feature I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing. Borrowing it’s title from a T.S Elliot poem, the film centres on Polly Vandersma (Sheila McCarthy) a virtual millennial ahead of her time in 1980s Toronto. When she’s not bicycling to her many temp jobs or taking Black-and-White photographs of whatever she finds amusing, she confesses her dreams and anxieties in an analog video-diary which serves as the film’s narrative device.
After landing yet another temp position at an art gallery housed in a former church, Polly meets the sophisticated gallery owner Gabrielle (Paule Baillargeon) and soon becomes smitten with her. Her confidence is soon shaken when Gabrielle’s former lover Mary (Ann Marie-MacDonald) rolls back into town. At Gabrielle’s birthday party, Polly discovers her boss is hiding an amazing talent for painting (so amazing that the film renders the portraits as mere beacons of light allowing us to fill in the image). Polly “borrows” one of the paintings to show to an art critic friend but soon realizes she has opened a can of worms not easily shut.
Mermaids owes a lot to it’s stellar lead Sheila McCarthy who handily engages us from the first frame with her seamless of the hopeless-yet-loveable Polly. Anyone in their 20s-30s will find a lot to relate to as Polly stumbles her way through a sophisticated art world by mis-pronouncing words (translucent becomes trans-LUCK-ent), clumsily ordering sushi (she winds up with squid), and struggling to find direction at the age of thirty one living alone with her cat.
The remainder of the cast is served well with Baillargeon giving a solid turn as a middle-aged career women straddling her care-free past and professional future while Marie-MacDonald is striking as streetwise lesbian Mary. It’s actually a shame that her character is woefully under-developed, serving as a one-dimensional foil for Polly while only hinting at further depth far too late in the film’s final act.
Only occasionally betraying it’s low budget roots, the films is skillfully filmed in 16mm, gracefully showing off Toronto both through the audience’s POV in colour, and through Polly’s B&W photos which occasionally morph into delightful fantasy sequences in which Polly can elevate herself both intellectually and physically (literally even walking on water in one scene!).
Canadian indie films can be a risky investment at times, often hopelessly wallowing in self-depreciating melodrama, but Mermaids is a delightfully pleasant experience due in no small part to it’s superb lead and confident direction behind the camera. It has aged surprisingly well after thirty years and is more than deserving of rediscovery.