The title is a potential problem for Mermaid in Paris, Une Sirène à Paris in the original French, a language with only one word, Sirène, for both Mermaid (half human, half fish, entirely fictional, essentially benign) and Siren (half human, half fish, entirely fictional, essentially malign). Mermaids are sexy and nice; sirens are sexy and not. Mermaids aren’t known for the voices; sirens lure humans to their deaths, often on treacherous rocks, by singing to them.
Mythologically, sirens didn’t start out as half fish. They were half bird until the Middle Ages, when, under the influence of the mermaid, they began transitioning. Why does this any of this matter? Because Lula (Marilyn Lima), the beautiful mermaid deservingly-handsome Gaspard (Nicolas Duvauchelle) finds unconscious on the banks of the River Seine one evening, is actually a siren, and her song – which has already lured a number of hypnotised men to their deaths – is the nub on which the whole film turns.
Why, when this siren wakes up and sings to Gaspard in order to neutralise him, doesn’t he react negatively, like the doctor in the hospital where Gaspard first takes Lula after finding her high and dry? That poor medic first became ecstatic and then had a fatal seizure.
Gaspard later reasons it’s because his love life has been so disastrous that something inside him has died. In matters of amour Gaspard is unreachable. OK.
Does the distinction between siren and mermaid really matter? In the end, not as much as it should. The song apart, this is a familiar story of man and a woman who’s fish below waist level. After their fatal misadventures at the hospital, Gaspard takes Lula home, installs her in his bath, as has happened in countless films, and then falls in love with her. At this point it’s legitimate to start pondering cross-species human/fish sexual congress and how other human/mermaid movies handled it, or didn’t – The Little Mermaid, Fishtales, Splash, Lady in the Water, Mr Peabody and the Mermaid, The Lure, Ponyo, Ondine, Undine, Oh! My Zombie Mermaid, and more.
According to the original logic of this movie, falling in love with Lula should render Gaspard vulnerable to her siren song, though for the film to continue as a love story this cannot happen. There is a lot of this sort of thing going on in Mermaid in Paris. For example the elaborate backstory about Gaspard being a member of the Surprisers, an elite group with heroic levels of creativity. Introduced and then largely ignored. We meet Gaspard’s best friend who looks interesting but is soon parked. The same thing happens to Gaspard’s dad, played by the superb Tchéky Karyo. It happens to inanimate objects too – like the fascinating floating nightclub where, beneath decks, the Surprisers still roar the night away. Or how about Gaspard’s career as a singer? He gets a musical number early on before that also turns into a plot cul de sac. Or the pregnant partner of the dead doctor (remember him?), who turns sleuth to find out why her man died. She should be a pivotal character but the screenplay largely abandons her, leaving actor Romane Bohringer to vamp heroically as she gumshoes her way towards Lula.
Instead of heading up any one of these potentially interesting avenues director Mathias Malzieu and co-writer Stéphane Landowski seem content just hanging about in Gaspard’s bathroom, where he and Lula interact cutely in a series of getting-to-know-you scenes. At one point, also cutely, he cooks her some of those breadcrumb-coated bite-size shapes made with mechanically recovered fish.
Almost escaping the fate of all the other side characters in this film is Almodóvar regular Rossy De Palma as Gaspard’s nosy next-door neighbour, a character who occasionally interrupts the wooing in the bathroom to add mechanically recovered kitsch.
There are caveats aplenty but in the end all that matters is that Gaspard is handsome and Lula is gorgeous – god, those eyes. One glance and the idea that a man would go happily to his death to get close to this mythical creature becomes entirely plausible (Marilyn Lima you might remember from a strange sexed-up morality tale called Bang Gang: A Modern Love Story in which she was also fatally alluring). Duvauchelle also makes Gaspard charming and lost-little-boy enough to soften the hardest heart.
It’s all delightful, puppy-dog-eyed and gorgeous. Paris is the ultimate orgasmic capital of a billion long-weekend fantasies and Mathias Malzieu, cinematographer Virginie Saint-Martin and production designers Vuk Mitevski and André Fonsny trick the entire film out as a super-warm, sparkly, idiosyncratic, over-stuffed dreamscape, all strongly reminiscent of Delicatessen and Amélie, cartoon-y, beautiful and with feelgood oozing out all over the place.
Being strict, it’s obviously a bit of a mess. A fairy tale which, beneath it all, might have a dark heart if it has one at all. In Mermaid in Paris objections will be raised and then they will be parked. It’s all rather lovely.
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© Steve Morrissey 2023