I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing (1987)

I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing
Director: Patricia Rozema
Writer: Patricia Rozema
Cast: Sheila McCarthy, Paule Baillargeon, Ann-Marie MacDonald, Richard Monette, John Evans
Seen on: 5.8.2022

Polly (Sheila McCarthy) is a slightly chaotic temp worker with a passion for photography. When she gets assigned as an assistant in the Church Gallery, owned and curated by Gabrielle (Paule Baillargeon), Polly is awed by Gabrielle’s artistic eye as much as her sophisitication and beauty. When she gets the chance to turn the job from temporary to permanent, she jumps at it. Then Gabrielle’s ex Mary (Ann-Marie MacDonald) turns up, and the balance between Polly and Gabrielle shifts.

I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing is a wonderful film. Funny, sweet and warm, it is also a insightful examination of the central characters. I really loved it.

The film poster showing Polly's (Sheila McCarthy) head floating over the ocean, a slight smile on her lips.

I gather that the title of the film is an allusion to T.S. Eliot’s poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each / I do not think that they will sing to me.). The mermaids here are Gabrielle and Mary. Gabrielle who is everything that Polly admires and will probably never become in her quirky chaos. Mary who is like the embodiment of queer desire (and desirability), heating things up in a way that the apparently unsexual (maybe asexual) Polly can’t begin to understand.

But at the same time, the mermaids are also Gabrielle and Polly in their work together in the art scene that Mary really doesn’t want to participate in, including the desire for approval that Gabrielle and Polly share and that Mary seems removed from. And finally, the mermaids are Polly and Mary who both have genuine artistic talent, something Gabrielle only dreams off.

Polly (Sheila McCarthy) cradling a big envelope.

It’s a fascinating character set-up and one that works really well, especially with the cast that is simply pitch-perfect, with McCarthy a particularly wonderful presence. She gets afforded most of the screen time, and she fills that time with so much charm, it feels like she carries the entire film. Even though Baillargeon and MacDonald can be overlooked more easily (well, MacDonald probably only if you’re not sapphic, because oooh wee), they are just as good.

Rozema has an incredibly light touch in the film. There is a cheeky sense of humor in everything, and I absolutely loved the trips into Polly’s imagination. It gives the film a really special atmosphere that makes you remember why films can be magical. I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing definitely is.

Mary (Ann-Marie MacDonald) and Gabrielle (Paule Baillargeon) sitting close in Gabrielle's gallery.

Summarizing: a beautiful classic.

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