Patricia Rozema is not a household name, and she’s made an odd smattering of films, including one for the American Girl series… and yet she’s been a fiercely independent filmmaker in every sense of the word since the 1980’s, the decade she first wrote, directed, edited, and produced her debut, I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing. It may be long-forgotten now, but it was the first English-Language Canadian feature, believe it or not, to win an award at Cannes, and caused a nice buzz when it first hit the independent film world in 1987.
True to its auteuristic spirit, Mermaids is whimsical, offbeat, quirky and unique, like a spry little pixie that refuses to settle into any container. It wears its low-budget-ness on its sleeve, yet cleverly buries its politics below the surface- featuring lesbian characters in 1987 was pretty edgy, yet Rozema (who is, herself, gay) weaves that characteristic into the story without ever making it a centerpiece of the drama. It’s just there, at a time when you only included gay characters if you were going to make an overt statement about them.
And the story? Polly, a Ziggy Stardust-looking, androgynous amateur photographer with no ambition whatsoever finds herself working as a temp for Gabrielle- a sophisticated art gallery owner who is everything Polly could never hope to be. Though she comes off as aloof at first, Gabrielle is actually good people, and she hires Polly full time despite Polly’s complete space-cadet sensibility (the scene of them eating Japanese food is hilarious.) As the two women get to know each other, Polly’s simple-minded nature contrasts with the pretentious art world, just as her sincere spirit ultimately rises above Gabrielle’s depressed self.
Though it’s sometimes clearly a comedy, Mermaids is also very much an artistic statement against hubris. The drama is real and goes into unexpected places, and you find yourself cringing for Polly because you love her so much and don’t want to see her get hurt. Rozema’s dream sequences sometimes feel a little tacked-on, but it doesn’t really matter- Mermaids is short, sweet, and a wonderful testament of late 80’s indie cinema that blossomed into the big 90’s independent film movement and beyond.
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