Patricia Rozema’s debut film I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing is one that seems omnipresent when people begin making lists of classic Canadian films. The story centres on the ever-whimsical Polly (Sheila McCarthy), a naïve amateur photographer in Toronto who becomes embroiled with the beautiful and sophisticated Gabrielle (Paule Baillargeon) after Polly’s hired to assist in the running of a trendy art gallery. Motivated by adoration, Polly smuggles Gabrielle’s artwork into the gallery for display, initiating events which eventually reveal a conspiracy between Gabrielle and her lover Mary (Ann-Marie MacDonald), to pass off Mary’s artwork as Gabrielle’s. The film also features several black and white fantasy sequences that represent Polly’s very fertile inner life as she retreats from the world around her.
I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing is certainly unique but is it really a Canadian classic? Sure the film won the Prix de la Jeunesse at the Cannes Film Festival in 1987 but it has also been called out by some critics for its allegorical and quasi-religious themes, and Rozema for her hesitancy to represent the lesbianism of the major characters in a more direct manner. Hoping to decide the matter once and for all, Danita Steinberg and Nick Watson sat down to watch the film and discuss whether or not it deserves to make the TFS Essential Canadian Cinema list.
Nick: First off, the major selling point on this one for me was that Anne-Marie MacDonald has a role in it. I wasn’t aware that she had acting on her resume, I only know her from her literary works, and was curious to see how she performed on the screen. Since this movie is so dated at times it was kind of difficult to judge among the late ’80s outfits, decor and the unexpected absurdity of this Toronto-based film. I didn’t care much for the acting, especially from “The Curator,” but Sheila McCarthy was quite adorable in the role of Polly. For a film where not much really happens, there are many bizarre situations which don’t come with an explanation and will encourage you to discuss the film after viewing it just to make sense of what it all meant. It was interesting at the most, but it just wasn’t strong enough to hold my attention for the entire hour and 20 minutes.
Danita: I agree, Ann-Marie MacDonald in the film is a big selling point for whether or not this is essential Canadian cinema. She is one of our most beloved authors, and rightfully so. That definitely gives this movie some extra bonus Canadian points. This movie is definitely really dated, and not even in a campy, enjoyable sort of way. Its low production value is pretty distracting. I wouldn’t necessarily call it a visually appealing film.
Nick: It’s interesting you mention the low production value of this movie because it seems like that is sort of representative of Canadian films in general. Growing up it always seemed that our movies and tv shows looked cheap in some way. Luckily times have changed and Canada has really upped its game when it comes to filmmaking.
Danita: What do you think about this film taking place in Toronto? For most of the film, Polly is pretty isolated. She lives in Toronto, but barely sees anyone. As Torontonians, we know how crazy of an idea that is. I know that isolation is a theme that comes up time and time again in Canadian cinema. Is I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing continuing with this theme?
Nick: I love that this film takes place in Toronto and doesn’t try to hide it. That is always an exciting thing for a Torontonian when your city is represented in cinema, it allows us to view it through someone else’s eyes. In this case we not only see it through the director (Patricia Rozema) but also through the main character Polly who is an artistic and quirky loner. She is never seen with friends and has very little interaction with people around her. She in herself is isolated, and has created a tiny world for herself in this big city.
While we were watching it I was trying to make sense of the title of the movie, which is a line taken from T.S. Elliot’s The love-song of J.Alfred Prufrock . Similar to the narrator in the poem, Polly is undecided about her life, her career and, one could also assume, her sexuality. She imagines herself in another time to escape the vicious, isolating modern world, and finds a way to articulate herself to those around her. The “mermaids singing” is the whimsical world she lives in, so I would say yes, the theme of isolation is very present here.
Danita: That’s cool to find out a little more back story on the film’s title. So, we’ve got isolation as a major theme.
When we watched it, we talked a lot about Polly’s character as the quirky, pixie gal and what that meant years ago when this film was released compared to what it means now. Nowadays, that character is really trendy. She’s artsy, has a short haircut, and wears clothes from her grandmother’s closet. No one would think twice about Polly’s character today. But when this film came out in 1987, I feel like there weren’t a lot of characters like her. It was all very much about the power women of the late 1980s and 1990s, wearing pant suits and being assertive. Do you think that image is more of an American image? Maybe Polly is more representative of Canadian women?
Nick: I don’t really think it’s a more Canadian look than it is American. It was showing off Polly as a little nerdy and unique in her own way, there is some feeling of naïveté when watching the character and the costumes just seemed to reflect that as well. And you’re right, that character is seen more and more these days with shows like Girls and The New Girl, the quirky awkward girl is now the cool girl. Who would have thought?
Danita: Her naïveté was something that really bothered me about this movie. No one acts the way Polly does – it is so unrealistic. She was so unaware of the world around her.
Nick: So do we think this is essential Canadian viewing? It definitely showcases some Canadian locations and themes, but its outdated feel makes me think it hasn’t stood the test of time and isn’t really one I would recommend.
Danita: I agree, this is a movie that hasn’t aged well. It’s a very artsy kind of film, and one that has been analyzed to death. I know it has been brought up in my film classes when talking about Canadian cinema and feminist filmmaking, but does that make it essential?
Is I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing Essential Canadian Cinema?
Nick: Well, as much as I wish I could say it was. I don’t feel like it is essential Canadian cinema.
There is our wonderful city of Toronto paired with Anne-Marie MacDonald so it is a very Canadian film indeed, but time has not been nice to this movie. The character of Polly, while cute and relatable in terms of themes, just don’t seem to transfer well in 2013. Perhaps it is more essential in terms of Women’s cinema, not just Canadian, for its representation of female love. But I just can’t see myself recommending this movie or giving it a second viewing, it just didn’t make an impact on me the same way some other Canadian films have.
Danita: I agree with Nick. This film is more essential to feminist filmmaking, and less essential to Canadian cinema. It’s pretty dated, and I finished the film feeling underwhelmed. A shot of the CN Tower does not make for something every Canadian needs to see.
The Final Verdict
I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing got a resounding “no” to being Essential Canadian Cinema from the TFS writers. What do you think? Are they off base or right on target? Tell us in the comments!
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