KinoKultura: Issue 34 (2011)

“I am Empty Space:” A Mermaid in Hyperreal Moscow

By Mihaela Mihailova (Yale U)

In his book entitled After the Future: The Paradoxes of Postmodernism and Contemporary Russian Culture, Mikhail Epstein (1995: 192) writes that, in Russia’s past, “the most grandiose simulacrum, or ‘concept’ that expressed the simulative nature of Russian civilization” was Saint Petersburg, a city whose reality “was composed entirely of fabrications, designs, ravings and visions.” Anna Melikian’s film Mermaid (Rusalka, 2007) suggests that, in Russia’s present, it is Moscow that has become the ultimate city-simulacrum. Melikian’s Moscow is a hyperreal space, to borrow Jean Baudrillard’s famous term. In it, a “reality independent of the sign” does not exist, having been replaced by models without origin generated via the “proliferation of ‘simulacra’ of reality” (Clowes 1995: 335).

The film opens with an animated sequence of colorful fish swimming against a vibrant green background, complete with bubbling sound effects. Soon, however, it is revealed that the background is actually the back of a woman’s dress. If the fish continue to move, it is only due to the sway of the woman’s sizable buttocks, which the camera lingers on for a few seconds. Thus, the theme of illusions, the unreliability of perception, and the potential deceptiveness of outer appearances is introduced in the very first scene of Mermaid.

Baudrillard (1994: 3) writes that “simulation threatens the difference between the ‘true’ and the ‘false,’ the ‘real’ and the ‘imaginary.’” The following analysis will focus on the ways in which Mermaid presents Russia’s capital as an environment where this difference is blurred to the point of becoming meaningless. It will discuss the film’s portrayal of a society continuously engaged in self-presentation, its members leading their lives as theatrical performances staged in order to sustain illusions of status, power, and happiness. It will foreground the role of advertising in facilitating glamour discourse’s invasion into everyday life by saturating people’s surroundings with deceptive simulacra of affluence and success and prompting them to ignore the realities of their own lives until their illusions replace their genuine experiences. Finally, it will trace the gradual dissolution of the protagonist’s individuality under the pressure of the delusion-generating rhetoric of advertising and point out her eventual reduction to a disembodied image. In doing so, this text will propose a reading of Mermaid’s setting and characters and (why not?) the film itself as hyperreal simulations—glossy facades without any meaning, but without the need for one, either.

This article will not, however, address the folkloric aspects of this film, as numerous and undeniable as they are. It is the author’s belief that the fairy tale undertones and motifs found in Mermaid require and deserve a thorough study which is both beyond the scope of this text and tangential to its chosen focus. For a multi-faceted and insightful introduction to Mermaid’s fairy-tale stratum, consult the analyses of Matthias Meindl and Svetlana Sirotinina (2009) and Christine Goelz (2009), as well as Stanislav Rostotskii’s Russian-language review of the film, all of which are cited below.

Moscow: the Hyperreal Capital
According to the Marquis de Custine “Russians have only names for everything, but nothing in reality. Russia is a country of facades. […] Russia is an Empire of catalogues: if one runs through the titles, everything seems beautiful. But. . . open the book and you discover that there is nothing in it” (1990: 94). Nearly two centuries after the French aristocrat’s remarks about the fabulous unreality of Russian life, Mermaid depicts contemporary Moscow in a similar light: as a city of facades, of illusory constructs produced by the community’s Western-influenced fantasies of beauty and power. Melikian’s Moscow is the capital of Russian glamour, with giant billboards advertising luxury items, expensive sports cars racing recklessly along the city streets, and the nouveaux riches hosting decadent parties. When a group of Asian tourists gives Alisa a handheld video camera so that she can record them, she lingers on their faces for only a second, choosing instead to zoom in over somebody’s shoulder in order to focus on a well-dressed nouveau riche couple engaged in a fight next to a slick red car. This, the film suggests, is the representative image of Moscow. These two people’s personal argument, like every other aspect of their lives, is a public performance meant to be consumed as a spectacle and to draw attention to the couple’s fabulous lifestyle and physical appearance. Indeed, this otherwise mundane everyday scene succeeds in attracting both Alisa’s attention and the handheld camera’s focus away from the tourists. As Mikhail Epstein (1995:196) notes, “the entire life of society becomes an empty self-presentation.”

anna melikianThis type of behavior is epitomized by Alisa’s love interest, Alexander, who works in a PR office selling parcels of land on the moon. Some critics have accused Mermaid of “‘collaboration’ with the aesthetics of consumerism,” and it is the scenes featuring Alexander that most vividly illustrate why this is a valid observation (Meindl and Sirotinina, 2009). This man is an embodied brand. His entire existence is regulated by the rules and codes of Moscow glamour discourse. His outer appearance, his apartment, and even his girlfriend are all chosen to project a sense of success and fortune. Alexander, portrayed by contemporary Russian sex symbol Evgeni Tsyganov, who is recognizable to domestic audiences and thus functions as a link between the film and Moscow’s actual glamour circles, is attractive, well-groomed, and fashionably dressed. He lives in an ultramodern high-tech apartment, where even the bed is operated by a remote control. The flat, which exists in a state of ever-increasing disarray, is the very picture of careless decadence: there are empty bottles everywhere, cell phones end up in overflowing ash trays, and nobody bothers to change the filter on the coffee machine. It boasts a spacious and polished bathroom with a large hot tub conveniently placed near the bed and equipped with a television set. In the living room downstairs, a big abstract painting adorns the wall, while a fur rug covers the floor. It is a sterile, cold, glossy place copied from the pages of an interior design magazine. Lacking the warmth and individuality of a real home, it is more reminiscent of the show pieces in furniture salons than of a personal living space. In fact, Alexander does use it as the set of his staged ritual displays of social success. Every week, he hosts extravagant parties there, inviting the same requisite “cool” crowd (thereby perpetuating said crowd’s notion of itself as cool) and hating every minute of it, as evidenced by the fact that he repeatedly ends up running away from this simulation of his own vibrant, happy social life, stumbling out into the street for yet another drunken attempt to get himself killed. 

Alexander’s stylish office is likewise designed to project an aura of affluence and prestige. It features a sizable leather couch, a giant flat-screen television, two stylish lampshades, a giant glass door, and a wall-sized poster of the moon with a telescope pointing to it. At the press of a button, a map of the constellations lights up on the wall, while a computer system allows Alexander to zoom in on the parcel of land and demonstrate to his client the lunar crater which s/he has secured the rights to. This could be the office of any hip and successful Western CEO (as seen on film or television, the only “real” referent for Russians attempting to copy this particular template), which is indeed the whole point. By modeling his workspace in accordance with a generic and easily identifiable visual style, Alexander legitimizes his business in the eyes of his target audience: a group of rich Russians expecting to be treated like the “elite” they imagine themselves to belong to (an elite which is itself as much a construct as Alexander’s moon properties scam).  

Even the young businessman’s girlfriend Rita is a showpiece. The fashionable dyed blonde with a model body “epitomizes Moscow glamour by showing a lot of skin and perfectly manicured hands” (Schmidt, 2009). She has no function in Alexander’s life other than complementing his glamour persona, as suggested by a scene in which she fails to cook his favorite childhood dish for him since, as beautiful as they are, her long nails do not allow her to peel potatoes. On his part, Alexander is more emotionally invested in his goldfish than he is in his girlfriend. “For him I am empty space,” Rita admits to Alisa. Indeed, certain shots of the film depict her as the finishing touch of the decadent décor in Alexander’s apartment. She is shown lounging around or watching television half-naked, her desirable body on display. It is as if the film, along with Alexander himself, is crossing another item off an invisible list. Trophy girlfriend? Check.

mermaidGiven that the young man’s life is a sustained illusion, it is only fitting that he should sell fabrications, namely parcels of moon property. The film focuses on the popularity and success of his business venture in order to mock a society which has taken pretense to such an extreme level as to make it perfectly acceptable to attempt to own a piece of the earth’s natural satellite. “Whether you sell socks, underpants, or the moon, the main thing is to sell,” Alexander tells Alisa, suggesting that in today’s Moscow, these three items have become equally marketable. Fredric Jameson (1979: 132) has noted that “the ultimate form of commodity reification in contemporary consumer society is precisely the image itself. […] We consume, less the thing itself, than its abstract idea, capable of the libidinal investments ingeniously arrayed for us by advertising.” Alexander’s business exploits precisely this need to consume abstract notions as a means of creating a false sense of superiority and deriving pleasure from one’s perceived mastery of something which, in reality, cannot belong to anyone (and can thus be claimed by anyone, as the businessman reminds Alisa). The montage sequence depicting conversations between Alexander and his prospective clients—the film’s most overt satire of the nouveau riche culture—unambiguously demonstrates that what is at stake in this transaction is not the moon land, but rather the idea of owning it. This is evident in the salesman’s rhetoric: attempting to convince a wealthy couple to buy a certain lot, he explains to them that their future property is located “between Ronald Reagan and Mike Tyson’s land.” The only purpose of this land is to represent status (when the wife objects to buying a lot next to Mike Tyson, her husband angrily quips, “So what, are you planning to live there?”). To these people, such a purchase means being on the same level—financially, and on an imaginary scale of global power—as a well-known politician and a celebrity sportsman, and having the certificate of ownership (itself a meaningless empty sign with no real referent) to prove it. As Alexander notes, only the visible side of the moon is for sale. As absurd as it may seem to place restrictions on such an inherently ludicrous venture, this makes sense. After all, why pay for something which cannot be seen if the entire purpose of the purchased object is to be flaunted?

Sustaining the Illusion: Contemporary Society’s Selective Blindness
Alexander, Rita, and the moon-owning nouveaux riches live in a Moscow that is all glamour, wealth, and extravagant excess. However, behind this façade, the city’s young business elite wanders around intoxicated at night, contemplating suicide, while its desirable women resort to childish magic tricks in a doomed effort to win the affections of their own lovers. Behind this façade lies the Moscow of minimum-wage jobs, cramped apartment buildings, and street riots. As Chip Crane (2008) notes in his review, the film immediately draws attention to the discrepancy between the ideal Moscow and the Moscow of the less fortunate masses: “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.” And yet, it is only the façade that interests Mermaid’s characters. All that matters is the surface, the packaging, the simulacra of happiness—even to those whose decidedly ordinary, simple lives pass in anonymity, such as Alisa’s family, which lives in the shadow of a giant advertising poster in a small, poorly furnished apartment hidden from view behind a deceptive promise of the perfect home.

Mermaid depicts contemporary Russians as afflicted with a special case of selective blindness which only allows them to focus on the various signs of power and affluence around them, prompting them to ignore the events and circumstances of their own lives, until the boundary between wishful thinking and authentic experience becomes so blurry as to render the two virtually indistinguishable. In their study of consumer practices in the postmodern context, A. Fuat Firat and Alladi Venkatesh (1995: 252) argue that “an aspect of hyperreality is the inclination or willingness among members of the culture to realize, construct, and live the simulation. When these simulations capture the imagination of a community, its members begin to behave in ways that authenticate the simulation so that it becomes the social reality of the community.” As already demonstrated, Melikian’s wealthy characters readily participate in such simulations. This is hardly surprising, given that, as illustrated by Alexander’s dual role as a consumer and purveyor of illusions, these simulations are created both by and for them. However, glamour discourse is equally successful in capturing the imagination of that (larger) portion of the community which cannot afford the corresponding lifestyle. Indeed, the hypnotic power of glamour is encoded in the word’s very etymology: “glamour is a corruption of the word ‘grammar,’ used in Scotland in the sense of spell or bewitchment (‘to cast the glamour over someone’)” (Schmidt 2009).

mermaidIn Mermaid, the bewitching influence of contemporary consumer culture on the lower classes is illustrated through the character of the mother. Even in the poor, god-forsaken village which Alisa’s family inhabits for the majority of the girl’s life, Alisa’s mother insists on maintaining a façade of elegance and style, despite the obvious futility and ludicrousness of such behavior. In one of the early scenes of the film, Alisa’s dreams of becoming a ballerina are crushed because her mother spends too much time choosing an outfit, making them late for the audition. In another scene, the mother runs to welcome a new tenant at their dilapidated seaside shack, her inappropriate high-heeled shoes sinking in the sand at every step. Once the family has moved to Moscow, Alisa’s mother, thrilled by the variety of products in the local supermarket where she works, enthusiastically describes to her daughter the veritable cornucopia of options which this supermarket represents for her. It is not specific goods that she feels happy about, but the abstract notion of consumable objects and the illusory, yet tantalizing prospect of buying them. In practice, she cannot afford all of them, but in theory, they are there to claim as her own whenever she wishes to do so. On Alisa’s birthday, her mother and the mother’s latest lover wish Alisa happiness and health, cheerfully announcing that they “can buy the rest.” Again, whether or not this statement is true is irrelevant; it is the possibility of its being true that generates the false sense of security and happiness which sustains these people.

In her discussion of Mermaid, Henrike Schmidt (2009) mentions glamour’s “paradoxical capacity to unite the underclass and the privileged elites through the offensive display of wealth and money.” This is the social phenomenon foregrounded in Mermaid. Wealth and money, along with the sense of fulfillment their possession generates, is equally appealing to everyone, regardless of their social standing or economic situation. However, it is not equally accessible. In that sense, Larissa Rudova’s point (cited in Schmidt, 2009) that “glamour is also very much about the new consumer culture and thus, in essence, democratic and open to everyone” is only partially valid. Glamour is only democratic in that it extends its illusory promises to everybody. In practice, however, glamour discourse emphasizes the inequality between different social strata, since luxury items and extravagant leisure activities are within the grasp of a limited sample of the population. Despite what the advertisement with Alisa’s smiling face on it may claim, the moon is not for everybody. The moon, ironically, is not accessible even for the girl whose image is utilized to sell it, as her meager earth salary could never be sufficient to make her Mike Tyson’s lunar neighbor. And if this inequality remains unacknowledged by Alisa’s mother, it is not because it does not exist, but because she chooses to ignore it, perfectly satisfied with the self-delusional sense of belonging to an imagined community of glamorous women.

Alice in Slogan-land: The Role of Advertising in Mermaid
Mermaid presents Moscow as a space completely permeated by advertisements, the visual language of the glamour discourse. Baudrillard (1994: 87) has suggested that, “today what we are experiencing is the absorption of all virtual modes of expression into that of advertising. This unarticulated, instantaneous form, without a past, without a future, without the possibility of metamorphosis, has power over all the others. All current forms of activity tend toward advertising and most exhaust themselves therein.” Indeed, advertisements are the all-powerful engine behind the simulation apparatus of the Moscow market. The hyperreality of today’s Moscow is generated and sustained by these empty signifiers designed to bewitch the population into buying the products and buying into the values, desires, and illusions they stand for. In his analysis of memes in contemporary Russia, Eliot Borenstein (2004: 470) writes that “the post-Soviet development of the market […] resulted in a virtual memetic invasion of the country. First and foremost, we see it in the plight of an unprepared populace faced with the onslaught of advertising.” Onslaught is an appropriate term for the experiences of Alisa (and the viewers) as she roams the streets of Moscow, surrounded by giant billboards, advertising posters, and banners. The ubiquity of advertisements in the film is more than easily noticeable; it is completely overwhelming. Dominating the urban landscape, they are prominently present in a considerable portion of the total shots. In Alisa’s point-of-view shots, advertisements are often the focus of her gaze. In shots of the girl, advertisements are also often visible, usually in the background.

Thus, advertising constantly invades Alisa’s personal space. Even when she runs (as she does often, since running from her problems, literally, is her mechanism for coping with them), new posters and banners keep appearing on-screen, mocking her efforts to escape from the unavoidable and all-encompassing visual network of simulacra. Borenstein (2004: 472) writes that, today, “both in fiction and the media, individual Russians (particularly the young, who are the perennial focus of societal fears) are portrayed as defenseless against the onslaught of […] consumer culture.” Alisa, too, finds herself powerless to resist the allure of glamour. After seeing Luc Besson’s science fiction film The Fifth Element (1997) on television, Alisa is so fascinated by actress Milla Jovovich’s fiery red hair (which the camera fetishistically lingers on during a prolonged close-up of Jovovich’s face, hair blowing in the wind), that she decides to dye her own hair, resulting in the bold green hue she sports for the rest of the film’s duration. True, the color of her hair may not be red, but, as Stanislav Rostotskii’(2007) notes in his review of the film, it is “absolutely mermaidish” (absolutno rusaloch’ei), i.e. different and unusual. Similarly, Alisa cannot resist the appeal of Alexander, her enchanting prince of PR. Thus, both the woman she attempts to model herself after and the man whose affection she craves are appealing to her because they belong to glamour culture and her attraction to them is a product of her enthrallment with their projected public personas.

mermaidAlisa’s life is not only permeated by advertisements, but also transformed into one. Unable to find any other job, the girl is forced to walk around Moscow wearing a giant phone costume which covers her completely so that only her legs stick out. Thus, she is literally contained inside the realm of representation and enslaved by it, reduced to a living exhibition. Here, Mermaid provides an extreme illustration of the power which the promotional apparatus can have over an individual. Instead of using the product, Alisa is (ab)used by it. This is not the only such instance in the film. After first lending her body to the phone advertisement, she lends her face to the promotion of Alexander’s business. In fact, this ad outlives Alisa herself; even after her death, it continues to hang on the side of a building.

In his discussion of contemporary advertising, Baudrillard (1994: 90) writes that “advertising is no longer (was it ever?) a means of communication or of information. If at a given moment, the commodity was its own publicity (there was no other) today publicity has become its own commodity.” Indeed, Alisa, who cannot afford most of the items advertised on the numerous posters and billboards she constantly sees, does not consume products – she consumes slogans instead. “Alisa’s landscape […] is marked by billboards selling not only products, but a narcissistic sense of agency as well” (Crane 2008). Indeed, Alisa is constantly exposed to advertisements whose rhetoric is specifically designed to give an artificial self-confidence boost and create a false sense of empowerment. Glamour discourse feeds the protagonist’s illusions and sustains her delusional conviction that she is in control of her own destiny, which will be ironically undermined at the end of the film, when a common street accident leads to her untimely death. For example, in one sequence she runs past a wall on which there are four posters next to each other. From left to right, they read: “The Engine of Your Desires,” “Everything is in your hands,” “Progress depends on you” and “Bravo bravissimo bravo bravo.” She even runs into a guy on the street wearing a T-shirt with the phrase “Your choice” on it. Similarly, at the end of the film, as she is literally walking towards her death, she encounters posters which assure her that, “the best is possible,” “the future depends on you,” and “you are special” and advise her to “follow [her] star.” The stark contrast between these promises and actual events is immediately established, however, since Alisa’s star promptly leads her to the morgue (arguably the least glamorous place in town), destroying both the character’s and the viewers’ hopes for a happy end. The best might be possible, but so is the worst, yet no advertisement will ever hint at this possibility.

Despite her objectively miserable existence—she is exploited at work, unhappy at home, and unlucky in love—Alisa goes through life motivated by a false sense of omnipotence and security replenished daily by the Russian capital’s ever-present slogans. She interprets these pithy phrases as commentary on her life or as directives which she needs to follow, taking them as magical clues meant to help her navigate more smoothly through life. For instance, when Alisa goes out with Alexander to celebrate becoming the “Moon Girl,” a glowing red marquee announces “after all we are together,” as if externalizing her thoughts and feelings at that particular moment. Similarly, in the same sequence, an advertisement proclaims that “everything is in your power,” ostensibly referring to her apparent success in getting her love interest to finally notice her. Alisa looks at the slogan and gives it a knowing smile, suggesting that she has read and accepted it as a mystical sign.

Whenever the film’s protagonist has doubts or second thoughts, all she needs to do is look around for some enchanting, pre-packaged reassurance. “Everything will be alright,” a boat going down the river informs her. “It’s so easy,” a commercial tells her as she is preparing to meet with her classmate Iurii again. Alisa admits to having had her spirits dampened (she describes it as “the time of greatest despair”) only once during the film. However, even then, her sobriety is short-lived, as she is newly hypnotized and drawn into her comfortable mental cocoon of illusions—this time not by a slogan, but by meeting Alexander, the living embodiment of Russian glamour. It does not matter that, in that particular moment, this contemporary god of PR is himself a wretched picture, nearly drowned after an unsuccessful suicide attempt. He is still handsome, mysterious, and alluring. He is her prince, and she falls in love immediately—not with him, but with the idea of him. After his unsuccessful attempt to dream up a father during her childhood, she takes this accidental encounter as an opportunity to imagine a boyfriend, projecting her naïve notions of love onto this man. “The first time I saw you I thought we would be together,” she later tells him with the same blind conviction that she applies to all her other thoughts and dreams, no matter how far-fetched.

Wishful Thinking: Alisa’s Illusions of Power
The motif of wishing and wishful thinking, which is closely related to that of advertising, is tied to Alisa’s character from the very beginning of the film. Alisa is as enamored of illusory notions as her mother is, albeit in a different way. While the mother is materialistic, the daughter is naively idealistic, perpetually believing in the impossible. Even as a child, she is prone to daydreams and shows a propensity to believe in her own fabrications. In fact, she relies on such fabrications to bring meaning to her life. For instance, she uses a constructed, three-dimensional life-size representation of the father she has never met in order to fill the emotional void left by his absence and to sustain the notion that he is coming back. Meanwhile, her father, a sailor who had a one-time sexual encounter with her mother at the beach, does not know of her existence. Thus, she is left to perform her mock ballet moves in front of her father’s dummy. Ironically, this dummy is not even a perfect simulacrum; a sailor suit must have not been available, so she dances in front of an old scuba diver’s suit with a picture of a man pasted on the transparent part of the helmet. 

In one of the first shots of Mermaid, young Alisa is shown “pushing” a ship along the water with her finger, apparently making it move. The two planes of the shot, one of which is out of focus, foreground the distance between the vessel and the child’s finger, emphasizing the fact that this is an optical illusion. This is easily dismissed as child’s play at such an early age, but she repeats the same “trick” as an adult at a later point in the film. In another scene, Alexander gets drunk and goes out in the middle of a busy road, bottle in hand. Alisa, who has followed him and is watching him from a bridge above the road, forms a protective triangle with her fingers around him and, as a result of another optical illusion, from her point of view it appears as though the cars which swerve to avoid hitting Alexander do so because they are repelled by her hands. As this scene demonstrates, she has not outgrown the urge to believe that she yields awesome power over her surroundings, just like she has not outgrown her childhood dream of becoming a ballerina.

What is more, up until her pointless, unexpected death, Alisa believes that she has the power to make her wishes come true. She first convinces herself of this after, at an early age, she catches her mom having sex with a tenant, sets the house on fire in a fit of vengeful rage and refuses to speak at all afterwards. As a result, she is sent to a “special school,” where, while staring at apples hanging from a tree until they fall down, presumably because she willed them to, Alisa realizes that she has “learned a magic trick: to make wishes come true. It’s simple. You just have to want it very much. And it comes true.” However, the fulfillment of Alisa’s desires always seems to come at a terrible cost, further undermining the legitimacy of her illusion of power and control. When, at age seventeen, she wishes to leave the village where she grew up, a storm completely destroys the entire place, leaving all its inhabitants, including Alisa’s family, homeless. Alisa’s mother has no choice but to sell her own mother’s gold jewelry and move the three of them to Moscow. As Alisa explains, “when people have nowhere else to go, they go to Moscow.” Thus, the film’s protagonist’s wish is granted, but at the price of bringing ruin upon an entire community. Similarly, after Alisa fails to gain admission into the university, she counts to ten in her head and wishes to study. Immediately after, a prospective student is run over by a car and she gets to take his place. Matthias Meindl and Svetlana Sirotinina (2009) describe this as a “zero-sum game where one person’s profit is another person’s loss.” Moscow glamour discourse seems to agree: immediately after Alisa learns of the student’s death, the film cuts to an advertisement for Audi with a slogan which proclaims that “the winner takes all.” As the girl, still in shock, is repeating “it’s not true, it’s not true” over and over to herself in an attempt to cope with her sense of responsibility for the accident, the camera focuses on a giant condom commercial which invites her, mockingly, to “not be afraid of [her] desires.”

These examples illustrate another function of advertisements in Mermaid—to provide ironic commentary on the developments in Alisa’s life and foreground the lack of correspondence between them and the assurances of the commercial market discourse. For instance, soon after Alisa’s family moves to Moscow, a giant poster depicting an attractive girl leaning on an “Evolution” washing machine is hung on the side of their apartment building, completely covering their window. The advertisement’s slogan—“It’s good to be home”—rings hollow, given that Alisa’s new home is nothing to feel good about (and is most certainly not furnished with a shiny new washing machine) and, thanks to this poster, has now become perpetually dark and isolated from the outside world. In another example of the film’s usage of advertisements as a device of bitter humor, after young Alisa’s dream of becoming a ballerina is crushed, the viewers see a shot of a Karlsson-on-the-Roof billboard above the steps of her school with the following text: “We guarantee to make your dreams come true.” The discrepancy between this sign’s promise and the lackluster surroundings of Alisa’s poor provincial public school emphasizes the chimeral nature of said promise. Furthermore, by intercutting this shot with the previous scene, in which Alisa’s dream explicitly does not come true, Mermaid undermines Alisa’s supposed abilities to grant her own wishes. Similarly, after Alisa sees Alexander and Rita together in his bed and finally realizes that her amorous relationship with the object of her desires has never existed outside of her own imagination, she runs outside, completely distraught, only to come across a shoe commercial inviting her to “Get [herself] a pair” (the word para in Russian means both a pair and one’s match). This advertisement adds insult to injury, both mocking the girl for being so easily susceptible to the suggestion of the necessity to “find a pair” at any cost and reminding her of her recent failure to do just that.

Alisa’s notion of herself as blessed or gifted is presented as yet another illusion. As Bettina Lange (2009) notes, “her forces are […] relocated into the realm of illusion and chance.” For instance, the last two times when she supposedly saves Alexander from death, her participation is limited to that of a helpless spectator. It is by sheer luck that none of the cars hit him as he is wandering on the road drunk, and it is by complete coincidence that he ends up in a car accident which prevents him from going to the airport. Despite Alisa’s conviction that it was she who prevented a tragic outcome in both cases, the film provides no indisputable proof that her “powers” had anything to do with either of Alexander’s fortunate escapes. Moreover, even if one assumes that the girl does possess special powers (the film certainly allows for, and indeed occasionally tempts the viewer with such an interpretation, especially by suggesting, via editing, that certain chance events occur immediately after she has made a corresponding wish), her wishes tend to backfire, cause unpredictable and often disastrous results, and ultimately lead to negative outcomes. Thus, given her utter lack of control over the development of the events she supposedly sets into motion, whether or not she has special powers is a moot point.

mermaidAlexander and Iurii both refer to her as “lucky,” but the film suggests that she is exactly the opposite. As already mentioned above, her desire to come to Moscow and study at the university brings destruction and misery to other people’s lives. Her wish to win Alexander’s affection never comes true. However, her vengeful desire to see him dead after she finds him in bed with Rita is nearly fulfilled, and it is only by chance that he avoids boarding the fatal plane. In fact, one may argue that her misfortunes at her job, her romantic disappointment and, ultimately, her death are all caused by her wish to leave the small seaside town, since none of them would have happened if she had not come to Moscow. Thus, the film presents her delusional sense of agency as a curse rather than a blessing.

The Hyperreal Individual: Alisa’s Gradual Reduction to an Image
In his analysis of postmodernism and consumer society, Fredric Jameson (1998: 6) writes that, while the “modernist aesthetic is in some way organically linked to the conception of […] a unique personality and individuality, which can be expected to generate its own unique vision of the world and to forge its own unique, unmistakable style,” postmodernism has brought about “the death of the subject, […] the end of individualism as such.” Here, Jameson perfectly sums up Melikian’s Moscow. In the contemporary megapolis, being unique is not a virtue, but a faux pas. Individuality is both discouraged and devalued; the only accepted and, indeed, expected course of action is to conform to the common taste and follow the rules of glamour discourse. Rita criticizes Alisa’s green hair because “it went out of fashion a long time ago.” The issue here is not that the girl’s hair looks fake—it is that this is the wrong type of fake. In fact, it is arguably her unusual hair that contributes to her choice as the Moon Girl. After all, the Moon Girl is supposed to represent a strange, distant otherness. Thus, when Alisa finds her place in glossy consumer culture, it is in the role of an alien.

However, for her to eventually reach the status of pure image, Alisa needs to lose any vestiges of her individual personality. Indeed, the whole film can be read as a record of the gradual reduction of a human being to an empty sign. Bettina Lange (2009) claims that “Alisa has the potential for a unique life-story and not just a second-hand media-based identity.” While this may be so, Mermaid traces the ways in which Alisa fails to realize this potential, becoming more and more bewitched by and entangled in a world of false perceptions and empty dreams. Blinded, exploited, and ultimately destroyed by the glamorous hyperreality of Moscow, she is stripped of her individuality until there is literally nothing left of her former self but precisely such a “second-hand media-based identity.”

Alisa’s individuality is suppressed from early childhood. Even as a little girl, she is encouraged to blend in, remaining barely distinguishable from all the other choir members dressed in identical uniforms. The choir leader does not even notice that Alisa has stopped singing. In fact, she tells Alisa’s mother that the girl is doing well. In this type of anonymous group, it does not matter that one member is voiceless; Alisa’s singing and her silence are equally drowned out by the others, suggesting that, as an individual, she can produce no impact. Her function is to simply stand there and pretend to be a singer. As long as the façade is convincing enough, what lies behind it is irrelevant. This episode foreshadows Alisa’s future in Moscow, where she will remain equally hidden, anonymous, and unnoticed (at least during her lifetime).

As soon as she arrives in Moscow, Alisa disappears inside the giant phone costume she is forced to wear. She is of no use to her employer as an individual; she gets paid to be a breathing, moving advertising vessel. Unable to communicate with anyone, she walks around completely cut off from the world, a world which does not care to know who she is. Her own face remains hidden behind the anthropomorphic phone’s perpetual grin. Her particular moods and expressions are replaced by an external simulation of carefree cheerfulness. In the phone costume, not only is she not an individual—she is barely human at all.

Ironically, once Alisa is out of the costume, the people around her continue to force her into new roles, further suppressing her individuality by showing utter lack of interest in it and expecting her to adapt to their needs and desires, or to their notions of who she should aspire to be. In one of the film’s most uncomfortable scenes, Iurii, the fellow student who is courting her, invites her over to his apartment. There, he unceremoniously propositions her without having had any conversation with her at all (as she is still in her silent phase and has refused to say a word to him since they met.) Evidently, he is not in the least disturbed by the fact that he has been talking into the void. This is because Iurii is not looking to establish an emotional connection with Alisa. Her personality is of no consequence to him because it makes no difference in the type of interaction he is looking for. In that sense, her muteness is not a drawback, but a convenience, since, to Iurii, Alisa is hardly different than the naked woman on the poster which he leans against as he talks—an empty placeholder. She is there in order to allow him to project his desires on her, and the absence of any salient personality traits, opinions, or needs on her part would have made the illusion even easier to sustain (had she agreed to his proposition).

Even Alisa’s own mother discourages the girl from attempting to be unique by urging her to aspire to look more feminine, which entails dressing according to a body type completely different from Alisa’s. For Alisa’s eighteenth birthday, her mother buys a kitschy bra which is useless to the flat-chested girl, a fact which the mother easily dismisses with the words, “you’ll grow into it.” Thus, instead of buying an article of clothing suitable for Alisa, she suggests that Alisa adapt to the clothing. As Firat and Venkatesh (1995, p. 251) have noted, “in the contemporary market, […] commodities come complete with preordained roles and lifestyles.” The girl is expected to model herself according to the bra’s parameters. Significantly, this occurs on the day of Alisa’s formal entry into adulthood (and adult consumerism). Thus, the film suggests that, as a right of passage, Alisa needs to abandon her current identity in order to assume a socially prescribed role, complete with the corresponding physical appearance and behavior.

Finally, Alisa herself cannot resist the allure of the notion of transforming herself into a more glamorous woman. After she receives the bra, she studies her body in the mirror, visibly dissatisfied with her small breasts and skinny frame. “Cow,” she calls her own reflection, offended by its lack of correspondence to the beauty norms dictated by the same posters and signs she never seems to be able to escape. Soon after this episode, Alisa, watching The Fifth Element on television, notices that Milla Jovovich, whose frame is also borderline anorexic, is nevertheless presented as a glamorous desirable heroine. Alisa’s gaze focuses on the actress’s red hair, identifying this aspect of the woman’s appearance as the source of her appeal. No slogan appears on the television screen, but Alisa reacts to this image in the same way she does to the advertisements around her: by interpreting it as a prescription for her life, a sign which she needs to follow. It is okay to be thin—this film assures her—as long as you dye your hair a vibrant color. Alisa does just that (unfortunately choosing green which, as Rita will tell her, is démodé, and so fails at generating the much-coveted stunning effect), goes out on the street to show off her new style, and immediately sees an advertisement on “how to change yourself in four weeks.” Thus, she is reminded that dyeing her hair is only the beginning. What is required of her in this environment is to change completely, to develop the chameleon skills necessary to survive in a world where appearances are everything—and the sooner she does so, the better.

But Alisa does not simply change; she becomes a disembodied image. “I’m nobody,” Alisa tells Alexander, and her words are prophetic, since it is he who ultimately turns her into the Moon Girl, an object of desire without a physical referent. Bettina Lange has noted that the film’s protagonist is “deconstructed until she is an empty fiction.” According to Lange (2009), “Alisa is no different from her completely unrealistic namesake in the 1980’s Soviet series Guests from the Future (Gosti iz budushchego). The protagonist in Rusalka is turned into a mere image, an embodiment of a person that does not exist.” Indeed, the Moon Girl is not Alisa. The Moon Girl is a glamour construct with no biography and no past. She is a representation, an embodiment of a marketing idea, all surface and no substance. And it is precisely for this reason that she is able to outlast Alisa. After all, as an empty, malleable sign of success, the Moon Girl is better suited for survival in contemporary Moscow than Alisa could ever be. After Alisa’s tragic accident, the Moon Girl ends up replacing the Earth girl in the world of glamour, “signaling the disappearance of a provincial girl who did not make it in the big city” (Drubek-Meyer, 2009). Alisa is literally obliterated by contemporary consumer culture: it is a shiny sports car which runs her over at the end of the film. Thus, ironically, Alisa has to go through the ultimate loss of identity—death—in order to finally be successfully inscribed within consumer culture as a “sign of the real substituted for the real” (Baudrillard 1994, p.81).

(A Simulacrum of a) Conclusion
Mikhail Epstein (1994:189) has identified the substitution of reality by a “system of secondary stimuli intended to produce a sense of reality” as operating in postmodern cultural production in Russia. Epstein (1994:196) writes that such cultural “‘presentations’ […] are typical simulacra, which do not claim to be veritable and thus cannot be reproached as deceptive.” This film is precisely such a presentation. As Christine Goelz (2009) has noted, “The omnipresent unreliability in Rusalka hints that everything might simply be “fake” […]. Given all this we should not be surprised when Alisa, who at this point is already dead, winks at the audience at the very end and invites us to buy her story as something wonderful.”

Indeed, this playful ending retrospectively puts into question the events of the entire film by suggesting that they be read as a dream sequence, a fantasy, or a simulation that was never intended to be taken at face value. Thus, Melikian plays a trick on her audience that is thematically appropriate precisely because its exact meaning and purpose are so ambiguous. After all, it is only fitting that a film about simulacra should ultimately turn out to have been a simulacrum all along.

In that sense, one question remains open: has this entire analysis been an example of “taking the bait” by searching for a meaning behind Mermaid’s glossy surface? Maybe the viewer is not supposed to dig deeper. Maybe, by doing so, one runs the risk of repeating Alisa’s mistake and falling prey to the hypnotic power of illusion. In the end, the concrete parameters of the content become irrelevant, and so does the message. What is at stake here is the film as a representation, the spectacle of illusion itself.

So this is not a real concluding paragraph. It merely looks and sounds like one. However, ultimately, isn’t that what matters?

Mihaela Mihailova
Yale University

Works Cited

Baudrillard, J., 1994. Simulacra and Simulation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Borenstein, E., 2004. “Survival of the Catchiest: Memes and Postmodern Russia,” The Slavic and East European Journal 48.3: pp. 462-483.

Clowes, E.W., 1995. “Simulacrum as S(t)imulation? Postmodernist Theory and Russian Cultural Criticism,” The Slavic and East European Journal 39.3: pp. 333-343.

Crane, C., 2008. “Mermaid,” (review) KinoKultura 20.

de Custine, M., 1990. Nikolaevskaia Rossiia. Moscow: Izdatel’stvo politicheskoi literatury.

Drubek-Meyer, N., 2009. “A Little Mermaid in the World of Russian Advertising,” ARTMargins: Central & Eastern European Visual Culture, “Rusalka” Roundtable.

Epstein, M., 1995. “The Origins and Meaning of Russian Postmodernism,” After the Future: the Paradoxes of Postmodernism and Contemporary Russian Culture. Amherst: University of Massachusetts.

Firat, A. F, and Venkatesh, A., 1995. “Liberatory Postmodernism and the Reenchantment of Consumption,” The Journal of Consumer Research 22.3, pp. 239-67.

Goelz, C., 2009. “A Modern Fairy Tale,” ARTMargins: Central & Eastern European Visual Culture, “Rusalka” Roundtable.

Jameson, F., 1998. “Postmodernism and Consumer Society,” in The Cultural Turn: Selected Writings on the Posmodern 1983-1998. New York: Verso.

———., 1979. “Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture,” Social Text

Lange, B., 2009. “Glamour Discourse,” ARTMargins: Central & Eastern European Visual Culture, “Rusalka” Roundtable.

Meindl, M., and Sirotinina, S., 2009. “Theodor Adorno, Fairy Tales, and "Rusalka",” ARTMargins: Central & Eastern European Visual Culture, “Rusalka" Roundtable.

Rostotskii, S., 2007. “Bremia Zhelanii,” Iskusstvo Kino 8, pp. 35-38.

Schmidt, H., 2009. “Happy End,” ARTMargins: Central & Eastern European Visual Culture, “Rusalka" Roundtable.


Mihaela Mihailova © 2011

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Updated: 03 Oct 11