"I've Heard the Mermaids Singing" (at Westside Pavilion), which won the Prix de Jeunesse for writer-director Patricia Rozema, is as distinctive and intriguing as its title. Swift, witty and intimate, it is an amazingly confident first feature that reveals with exquisite humor and compassion the pitfalls in a relationship between two radically different women. Beyond this, the film also sends up the perils and pomposity of the art world.
It unfolds as flashbacks within a "videotape" in which a 31-year-old Toronto "Temporary Person Friday" (Sheila McCarthy) tells us what happened when she went to work for Gabrielle (Paule Baillargeon), curator of an avant-garde art gallery. McCarthy's Polly is an adorable, carrot-topped, klutzy scatterbrain, humble to a fault, who worships her new employer, a relentlessly chic, handsome, French-accented middle-age woman who is as sophisticated as Polly is not. Polly's a terrible typist, but her wistful charm and dogged devotion easily win over Gabrielle.
What ensues is a crisp, smart-looking bittersweet comedy of faulty comprehension, truth and deception. Polly is too blindly idolizing and too curious about Gabrielle for her own good. Gabrielle, for her part, at once overestimates Polly's capability to understand her and her elegant, often glib world. At the tag end of the evening of her birthday party, Gabrielle, tired and with defenses down, confides in Polly that she has everything--money, position, friends, a stunning-looking devoted young lover (Ann-Marie McDonald)--everything except the artistic talent that would ensure her immortality. She envies Polly her contentment with modest expectations, but quickly apologizes for sounding patronizing.