Anna Melikian: Mermaid (Rusalka, 2007)

reviewed by Chip Crane© 2008

Anna Melikian has said in interviews [second link] that she chose the source material for her second film because she likes sad endings. Rather than simply filming a modern version of Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale, she playfully borrows elements from its plot to create a meditation on desire and fantasy that is, following her preferences, “funny, funny, and finally very sad”. The desires of the film's central character are made concrete in the film through a conspicuous use of advertising imagery and through occasional dream sequences in which she sits in front of a cartoonish seascape surrounded by all of the things that she wants most at that moment of the narrative. As in the story by Andersen, however, an attempt to fulfill ones dreams comes at a high price, and Igor' Vdovin's upbeat soundtrack underscores the glee with which the main character is driven toward her own disaster.

Mermaid is the story of a girl, Alisa (Nastia Dontsova as a child; Mariia Shalaeva as a teenager), conceived during an aquatic tryst between a sailor and a very large woman who lived in a seaside town. Although she has never met him (and her mother had only seen him the one time), Alisa dreams of her father's return, eventually mistaking a sailor who arrives to board at their cottage for him. Upon walking in on her mother having sex with this new stranger, she burns their house down and resolves never to speak again (although she constantly speaks to viewers, narrating her life through an affable voice-over). Following this she is placed into a school for retarded children and the story skips ahead eleven years, but in the meantime, as she explains to us, she has learned how to make her wishes come true: “It's simple. You only have to want it very much.” This ability is shown to come with a cost, however, when, seeing her mother with yet another man, Alisa wishes “to leave” and a hurricane comes and destroys her town. After this disaster Alisa, her mother, and her grandmother move to Moscow, where Alisa works, tries to attend the university, and meets several odd people, including Sasha (Evgenii Tsyganov). She falls in love with him (at first sight, of course) and abandons her silence after she saves him from drowning in the Moscow river following a suicide attempt. During the final portion of the film, she tries desperately to make him love her back, which is difficult because he is a drunken yet successful businessman, who can barely remember who she is and who already has a beautiful girlfriend. Alisa becomes his maid, involves herself in his life, and eventually spends the day with him on something like a date. After walking in on him having sex with his girlfriend, Alisa curses him, using the same words she used to curse her mother before burning their house as a child and then dreams of his death. The next morning she prevents him from flying to a business meeting on a plane that crashes, but as she is going to meet him she is struck by a car and dies.

Like Melikian's pervious effort, Mars (2004), Mermaid is filmed in a meticulously quirky style full of remarkably framed shots, and alternating between a vibrant, saturated color palate and washed out shots of dark interiors, linking it visually to other contemporary fantasy films (an influence Melikian acknowledges in the film when, in an attempt to impress Sasha, Alisa dies her hair green after seeing Milla Jovovich's fiery red hair in a scene from Luc Besson's The Fifth Element [1997] playing on a television set). Melikian frequently uses the camera to comment on the difference between fantasy and reality. When Alisa moves to Moscow with her family, we are shown a high-speed montage of the downtown landmarks, creating an image of a fantastic city, before the camera settles on the grey apartment block into which they move. Similarly, the film undermines audiences' acceptance of Alisa's wish fulfilling abilities with a shot of her pretending to push a distant boat by moving her finger behind the spot that the boat occupies in her field of vision (a trick of perception that Alisa repeats in a similar shot later when, protecting Sasha after he drunkenly stumbles onto a highway in another suicide attempt, she forms a barrier around him with her hands that, from her perspective, causes the cars to swerve).

In Mermaid, Melikian continues to use the device of ascribing enormous importance to a group of objects. Much as the stuffed animals in Mars achieved a heightened significance, this film revolves largely around advertisements. Alisa's landscape, from her childhood on, is marked by billboards selling not only products, but a narcissistic sense of agency as well, with slogans like “We guarantee to make all your dreams come true,” “Progress depends on you,” and “Toward your desires.” Shortly after arriving in Moscow, the window of Alisa's apartment is covered as a giant advertisement, featuring a woman's face and the words “It's good to be home,” is lowered over the entire side of the building. One of the more striking visual moments in the film occurs when Alisa cuts a hole in this advertisement around her apartment window, which is located in the center of the eye of the woman pictured on it, nicely resolving the contradiction between the sentiment of the slogan and the literal shadow the advertisement cast over her building. Not only do advertisements interact with Alisa by commenting on her action and encouraging the development of her desires, she, herself, becomes a living advertisement, taking a job in Moscow walking around the city in a giant foam telephone.

The emptiness of the promise held out by these advertisements, as well as the power of the fantasy they offer, is highlighted in a subplot involving Sasha's business. Sasha is a salesman who sells lots on the moon to people with money to burn. In a particularly humorous montage sequence, we see an average day at his job, cutting rapidly back and forth from his sales pitches to his customers voicing concerns about their investment in lots on the moon. Following all of this, he examines a number of screen tests featuring women who want to become a spokes-model for his company, but is unsatisfied by all of them. After taking Alisa out for coffee, he brings her to another audition, this time for children. When the director sees Alisa with her otherworldly green hair, he proclaims that he has found their spokes-model, he has found their “moon girl.” The penultimate shot of the film is of a billboard featuring Alisa and the slogan “The moon for everyone,” highlighting the promise of advertising—who does not want the moon?—and its dishonesty—offering a product that is never presented as a real possibility.

Just as these advertisements encourage their spectators to accept the applicability of their messages to their lives, the film's genre markers, such as the division of the story into chapters, encourage viewers to accept the applicability of the fairy tale narrated by Alisa's voice-over to the events on the screen. The ending of the film cleverly subverts this, hinting that the fairy tale, despite its promise, may have been a deception all along. In the final moments of the film, Melikian weaves together the actions of several characters: Sasha and Alisa are shown moving alone through the streets of Moscow, presumably in search of each other so that they can live happily ever after. They are accompanied by shots of billboards proclaiming facile optimism with slogans like “Follow your star.” Intercut with these shots are others of a minor character racing through Moscow in a red sports car, which, following moments of heavy foreboding earlier in the film, clearly spells doom for our would-be happy couple. As the editing speeds up, creating anticipation of a climax, the camera suddenly stops at an intersection that Alisa is preparing to cross. Instead of the collision that viewers have been led to expect, the sports car races past Alisa when she is half-way through the intersection. She pauses for three seconds, long enough for viewers to process the film's subversion of the expectations it had generated, before she is hit and grotesquely sent flying by a car coming from the other direction. As the camera slowly zooms in from above on Alisa's lifeless body, Alisa explains via the same voice-over, through which she has taken responsibility for everything that has happened during the film by explaining it all in terms of her magical ability to fulfill wishes, that this kind of thing often happens in the big city and her tragedy can be explained by fate. This explanation, however, is made suspect by her failure to be run over by the correct car, challenging the audience to re-evaluate her explanations in the rest of the film.

Mermaid challenges viewers to make sense of the events on the screen, tying together contradictory information and imagery, but at the same time cautions them not to believe the explanations they make up. Without offering any clear answers, it takes up questions about fate and agency, fantasy and reality, and the nature of desire in the contemporary world, packaging them in a vivid and fun comedy with a very sad ending.

Chip Crane, University of Pittsburgh

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Mermaid, Russia, 2007
Color, 115 minutes
Director: Anna Melikian
Scriptwriters: Anna Melikian with Natal'ia Nazarova
Cinematography: Oleg Kerichenko
Art Director: Ul'iana Riabova
Music: Igor' Vdovin
Cast: Mariia Shalaeva, Evgenii Tsyganov, Mariia Sokova, Nastia Dontsova, Irina Skrinichenko, Veronika Skugina
Producer: Ruben Dishdishian
Production: Magnum, commissioned by Central Partnership; with assistance from the Federal Agency for Culture and Cinema
Awards: Sundance Film Festival (World Cinema Directing award); Sochi Open Russian Film Festival (Best Actress: Mariia Shalaeva)

Anna Melikian: Mermaid (Rusalka, 2007)

reviewed by Chip Crane© 2008

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