As a constant daydreamer who also happens to be a member of the queer/LGBTQ community, I totally related to Patricia Rozema’s whimsical I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing (1987), which takes the viewer into some really quirky and poignantly observational places.
Polly (the adorable Sheila McCarthy) is an aspiring but timid photographer who lands a job as a secretary for the seemingly put together Gabrielle (Paule Baillargeon), who also happens to be a painter. Polly becomes enamored and infatuated with her, but finds out firsthand that she isn’t whom she appears to be, especially when Gabrielle’s lover Mary (Ann-Marie MacDonald) comes into the picture. Things turn even more sour when Polly finds that Gabrielle’s work really belongs to Mary. With this harsh realization, she discovers how the art world truly operates.
I really loved this film. I found it delightful while also being struck by its nuances and real truths about the pretentiousness of artists and their neurosis. I was also genuinely won over by McCarthy, who gives Polly real heart and natural quirkiness. She can be sad without overdoing it and happy without being over-the-top. It’s just an amazing performance from her. Both Baillargeon and MacDonald are also amazing in their roles. Their older woman-younger woman chemistry is really inspired and really gives a reality to how lesbian relationships should be depicted, without the clichés.
There are a few male characters in the film, but they are irrelevant. They don’t add anything to the plot, but that’s the whole point. Rozema depicts women on their own terms: living, breathing, aching, and being. They seem to have it all, but really need something more or a lot less. I find that absolutely refreshing.
‘Mermaids Singing’ is a compact comedy-drama about the art world and the complexities of female conflict that is light on a run time, but very big on inspired characters and reflection. It’s also another prime example of the immediacy and importance of films by women.
Special features include a new commentary by Rozema; three short films by Rozema: Passion: A Letter in 16mm (1985), Desperanto (1991), and The Shape I Think (1995); introduction by Rozema (courtesy of Metrograph); Q&A with Rozema, moderated by filmmaker Laurie Anderson; video essay by filmmaker/historian Daniel Kremer; and trailer.