Patricia Rozema’s Mermaids Are Singing Again
Author: Trudy Ring
I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing, filmmaker Patricia Rozema’s well-loved debut feature, is about to reach new ears and eyes.
The quirky comedy-drama, which first won audiences over in 1987, is getting a new theatrical release, beginning today in New York City, continuing March 18 in Los Angeles, then expanding to 10 other cities in the U.S. and Canada. It was digitally restored in 2017 for Canada’s 150th anniversary as a nation.
“I feel ecstatic,” writer-director Rozema says about the re-release. “It’s really moving to have your work from some 35 years ago still create enough excitement for people to want to release it. … I’m excited to share it with a new generation if we can draw them out.”
The film follows Polly (Sheila McCarthy), an awkward, “organizationally impaired” 31-year-old who hasn’t found her place in the world. She lives in a dumpy apartment with her cat, does temp work, and finds her one joy in taking photographs. Her new temp assignment is a secretarial job at a Toronto art gallery run by an elegant, cosmopolitan older woman, Gabrielle (Paule Baillargeon).
Sheila McCarthy’s Polly contemplates herself
Gabrielle becomes fond of Polly and hires her on a permanent basis, and Polly, who’s had a couple of brief relationships with men, develops romantic feelings for Gabrielle. “I think I kind of fell in love with the curator,” Polly says, speaking directly to the audience, as she often does in the film. She adds, “I don’t think I wanted kissing and all that stuff. I just — I just loved her.”
But while Polly silently idolizes Gabrielle, the curator resumes her relationship with another young woman, the blunt-spoken artist Mary (Ann-Marie McDonald). The film contrasts Polly’s innocence with Gabrielle and Mary’s sophistication and occasional cynicism, satirizes the pretensions of art critics and patrons, and includes moments of magic realism.
Rozema made the movie on a minuscule budget and was surprised and gratified by its reception, which included a screening at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Prix de la Jeunesse (Youth Prize), and a warm response from audiences and reviewers.
“When you make a film in complete obscurity, you think you’re just the weirdest little nonentity in the world, but you have a strong yearning to express what you find moving and disturbing and funny and poetic, and then to find that the rest of the world shares some of your likes and loves is deeply rewarding,” she says.
“As a young queer woman, back then when it was not cool and could be career-stopping, I did my best to find a way to express myself that wouldn’t make it impossible for me to make more films. … I wanted to find a way to express my fascination for and love for the love of other women, of same-sex attraction, in a way that was amusing and gentle and loving and palatable for people who hadn’t come across it before.” Her strategy was to introduce a character and make audiences like her before bringing up same-sex attraction, which was how she wanted people to see herself — first as a human, then her orientation.
Homophobia persisted, however, in the film industry and in the rest of the world. Rozema recalls that in 1995, The New York Times refused to run an ad for her film When Night Is Falling because it depicted two women kissing.
“It was a hard world, and I came from a hard world,” says Rozema, who comes from a Calvinist background — one of the strictest forms of Christianity. “I came from a world that almost didn’t know homosexuality existed … any references were deeply awash in shame.” While she has affection for some aspects of her upbringing — it made her strong, she says — she still gets angry at the amount of shame it included.
“Sadly, it’s coming back,” she says, noting the rash of anti-LGBTQ+ and specifically anti-transgender legislation that has been introduced around the U.S. She has a transgender son who’ll start college this fall. “It’s devastating to see this wave of exclusion and hate coming back,” she says. “I thought we were leaving it behind us.”
Issues of discrimination also play out in film, where equal opportunities for LGBTQ+ people and for women remain elusive. On whether only queer actors should play queer roles, Rozema says, “I don’t choose to say how it should be, but I know that I am much more intrigued if I know that someone queer is playing someone queer … it just feels like the opportunity for authenticity is so much greater.” It hasn’t always been a consideration for her, but she would strongly encourage the casting of queer actors in queer roles, she says. And they should also have the opportunity to play straight characters, she notes.
Paule Baillargeon as Gabrielle, the curator
As for the women in Mermaids, McDonald “is one of the most courageous and out lesbians in the world,” Rozema says, while the other lead actresses are straight. Polly is a character who’s just discovering how she feels, and Gabrielle is closeted and possibly bisexual, she observes.
Women have made some great strides in film, with many more female directors coming up over the past few decades, but the people making the decisions and which films get made are still overwhelmingly white straight men, and that needs to change, Rozema says. She’s for proportional representation of women and other marginalized populations on film crews, and it’s time to amplify their voices in film, she says. “The work should represent the makeup of the population,” she comments, plus “it’s more exciting to pass the mike to people who haven’t spoken yet, to hear their stories.”
Rozema, a Toronto resident who’s in a long-distance relationship with a woman in California, also has a cisgender daughter who’s an opera singer in Munich. She’s busy with a variety of projects, including a feature she can’t talk about yet because it’s in negotiations, an autobiographical screenplay, and a TV series she wants to develop.
Her body of work has been varied, including the Jane Austen-based Mansfield Park, which was not only a story of 19th-century British society but a commentary on colonialism and slavery; Into the Forest, a tale of survival starring Elliot Page and Evan Rachel Wood; Mouthpiece, with one character — a woman dealing with her mother’s death — played by two actresses. “I’m proud of the range of tones and styles that I’ve played with,” she says, also noting that she has much yet to do: “I feel like I’m just getting going.”
And she maintains her love for Mermaids. “It’s just so pure and sparkly and inventive — I feel like I wasn’t hampered by anyone’s expectations,” she says. “It’s full of a sense of play.”
Rozema will have an onstage conversation with Laurie Anderson after tonight’s 6:30 screening of Mermaids at Metrograph in New York, and she’ll also do Q&A’s at the Alamo Drafthouse in Los Angeles, where it opens in a week. Find a list of screenings here; the film is also available for rental on Kino Marquee. Watch the trailer below.
Original Article on The Advocate
Author: Trudy Ring