I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing
written and directed by Patricia
Rozema Vos Productions

Shall I part my hair behind?
Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel
trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids
singing, each to each.
I do not think that they
will sing to me.

“My theory,” says Patricia Rozema, “is good art is what you like.” Rozema, a down-to-earth, 28-year-old Canadian, is the writer, director, editor, and coproducer of I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing. Mermaids can be hard to describe: It is both a film about independence and a Canadian ode to incompetence—about an impossibly red-haired, wildly inadequate “organizationally impaired” temporary secretary in Toronto named Polly.

Polly is the kind of person who says “Holy Moly,” whose polyester sweaters and milk mustache and malapropisms belie a vivid inner life. She comes complete with bicycle and a slightly nosy love of taking black-and-white photographs. She also has a salt-of-the-earth self-sufficiency and sincerity that puts the better dressed, better educated, better spoken people she idolizes to shame. To her employer, the curator, Polly is just a “sweet imbecile,” a half-life half-lived. But she is more like what the Russians call a holy fool—wiser than the “wise,” and under some good angel’s protection.

Rozema does not pretend she has no axes to grind. The trick, according to her, is to distract the audience from the proselytizing at hand with the story of Polly’s coming of age. “I do spend a lot of time thinking about what Pm trying to say and how I’m going to hide it,” Rozema says and smiles. “I have strong didactic, evangelical tendencies which I have to sugarcoat with really nice characters like Polly.”

Rozema’s ax here is just the old saw “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” “Artistic relativism” is what Rozema calls it, and it sounds almost too simple, perhaps. But then again, if the excellent is something other than what you like, who is making that judgment for you? Is taste something you should really leave up to the art critic at the Toronto Star? Or Anatole Broyard at the New York Times Book Review? Somebody in the English department at Yale? Your mother? Or someone with a more forceful personality or better credentials? To say good art is just what you like is, I’ll grant you, naive. But if good art is what somebody else likes, that’s just pretentious. And what good has pretension ever been to anybody?

So our heroine, our champion of the independent opinion, is this 31-year-old “person Friday” who proclaims things like, “Isn’t life the strangest thing in the world?” and “Y’know, sometimes I think my head is like a gas tank, and you have to be really careful what you put into it, or you mess up the whole system.” It’s like having Don Quixote for your knight. Certainly Polly is nothing if not unpredictable—from ordering by number in a Japanese restaurant (she gets squid), to taking photos of a couple in the park (she gets caught), to being hours late for the curator’s birthday party (with lipstick over the entire lower half of her face).

Polly is, says Rozema, “my license to be earnest.” She is ours as well; endearing for just that earnestness, and by the end of the movie so wonderful because, despite every crazy thing about her, she is right. And the curator, with whom Polly is in love (“that’s a strong word to use when it’s not your mother, but there you go,” Polly shrugs), is not right. Polly sends in her photographs (under a “pseudo-name”) to the curator, who dismisses them with a glance and a sharp remark and destroys Polly. Polly pedals home, burns all her prints, and pushes her camera off the roof. It is a terrible scene, really, for all Polly’s funniness—it is as if Shakespeare’s best fool, Dogberry, and not Lear, were going mad on the heath.

Not many films take a line of Eliot’s for their title, even a line from his most famous poem. Rozema says she was hard up for a name, happened to be rereading “Prufrock” one day, and latched upon the image for her film. Eliot’s elegantly metered dirge to the death of initiative is mournfully sophisticated and cynical, in a way neither Rozema nor Polly is; Rozema has to stretch the image a bit to make it fit (those mermaids show up in Polly’s daydreams).

There are, actually, another three lines which fit the movie better:

We have lingered in the
chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with
seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and
we drown.

It takes so little—an offhand remark—for the curator to kill what was for Polly the whole of her existence. But holy fools live under the special protection of the Gentleman upstairs, and Rozema has written a comedy: Polly discovers her idol is a fraud, and that’s all she needs to bounce back in her idiosyncratic, inimitable way.

This film is not a product of Hollywood. I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing was made for peanuts ($275,000 American) and shot in 23 days, with a well-regarded but hardly famous Canadian actress working for scale. It is beautifully acted and literate beyond expectation. By choice as well as necessity. Rozema avoided the pomp and circumstance of the ever more popular grand cinematic sweep. She has made the filmed eqquivalent of a Jane Austen novel (albeit in a very different era and with no marriages); from the small and particular world of Polly, Rozema has created something lasting and, oddly enough, grand.