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'Mermaids': Women In A Relationship

September 25, 1987|KEVIN THOMAS | Times Staff Writer

"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.

What Gabrielle, as smart as she is, doesn't realize is that while Polly is not driven, she is in fact a daydreamer who imagines herself in all kinds of fantastic situations--these make for some of the film's most amusing moments--and who also is secretly a passionate photographer. She also doesn't realize how deeply--and dangerously--Polly idolizes her.

The consequences of how Polly and Gabrielle view each other lead to the question of how people look at and judge art--as well as each other. No film maker who would make so invitingly provocative a film could be against criticism, but Rozema does have fun with its excesses. "There is a hopefulness in his contextual destructionism . . . a tragicomic clash in his levels of comprehension" are just some of the pretentious phrases that crop up in Gabrielle's discussion with a local art critic (Richard Monette).

In one instance, Rozema creates a hilarious situation in which works of art, merely glowing tabulae rasae, must literally be what you make of them. She is really saying what most critics are always saying, which is to dare to think for yourself and at the same time respect the right of everyone to his or her own opinion.

"I've Heard the Mermaids Singing" (Times-rated Mature for complex themes) is, to be sure, more about people than art or criticism, and the way our impressions of each other can trip us up. McCarthy and Baillargeon create two likable people, so easily understood by us in our godlike position as viewers, but who misunderstand each other as easily as we misunderstand the people we care about in our own lives.

Also on the bill is Zbigniew Rybczynski's poignant 4 1/2-minute "Imagine," a visualization of the John Lennon song in which an individual's journey through life is expressed as a passage through a seemingly endless succession of rooms. It's another stunningly simple metaphor from the maker of the similar, Oscar-winning "Tango."

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