There is something intrinsically romantic about Paris. The City of Lights. A place rendered in pastels. All of that dreamy architecture. Cathedrals that beckon the heavens and a tower that pierces the sky like an arrow to the heart. When we think of Paris, we think of colors and fountains and gardens and palaces. And we think about love.
Cue A Mermaid in Paris, a loving tribute to a city, to bohemia, and to storytelling as a concept and a salve. Musician-turned-director Mathias Malzieu has created that rarest of gems—a movie that dabbles in treacle but avoids a mouthful of cavities. This is a modern fairy tale, with all that that entails (pun intended). It is bursting with color, with beauty, with joie de vivre. But there is a simmering darkness, too, for storybook mermaids are not the docile fish creatures of Disney fare, but tragic and dangerous beings. The worst creatures to fall in love with… or the best, if you’re nursing a broken heart.
The film follows Gaspard Snow (Nicolas Duvauchelle), a man stuck in the past. He’s a musician at a cabaret beneath his family business, a restaurant called the Flowerburger, where he sings lovelorn songs to an audience of two or three. When he wanders home, he’s met by his nosy neighbor Rossy (Rossy de Palma), who listens to his every move with a conch shell to the wall. But there isn’t much to hear anymore. His apartment is stuffed with relics of the past—a row of guitars, a shelf full of clay figurines, a bathroom riddled with rubber duckies—and with a grey cat named Johnny Cash. But he has no lover, no family of his own; he only has memories of his grandmother, who founded the Flowerburger and who lived that perfect bohemian life. A life he dreams about but cannot conjure for himself. And so he sulks and sings.
But then he meets Lula (Marilyn Lima), a siren of the Seine, who washes onto a cobbled alley near the Flowerburger, her tail punctured and bleeding blue. Gaspard whisks her to a nearby hospital, where she tragically confronts another man and explodes his heart with her singing voice. That is the terrible curse of being a mermaid, but her magic has no affect on Gaspard. “My heart exploded long ago,” he tells her later. The hospital will not service an insurance-less mermaid, so Gaspard tends to Lula himself; he puts her in his bathtub, shows her cartoons, feeds her fishsticks. Slowly, the two fall for one another. But Gaspard may not be as immune as he once thought.
Theirs is a love both chaste and terribly romantic; they are two lonely, tragic souls drawn together by happenstance and fate. And whatever magic binds them together finds its way into every crevice of the movie. Malzieu, whose CGI film Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart won him a César, imbues A Mermaid in Paris with an infectious whimsy. The art design is elegant and fantastical. There is a beautiful mythology to the film, about a band of resistance bohemians known as the Surprisers, who are tied to Gaspard’s lineage and his inherent melancholy. And the end, you’ll fancy yourself a Surpriser, too, because that’s the gift Malzieu gives: the desire to dream again.
It’s been a weird year for movies. Gone is the traditional theatrical experience, and born is the question of whether things will ever be the same. Maybe that’s why A Mermaid in Paris is so intoxicating. Even watching it on a computer screen during a virtual film festival doesn’t dampen its spell. As cliché as it feels to say, this is one of those movies that reminds us of why we love movies in the first place. Because they are transportive. Because they are magical. Because, for two hours in a darkened room in the middle of a pandemic, you are dropped into a fairy tale Paris where mermaids wash ashore and change the course of your life. The film might not be life-changing, but it is life-affirming, and that’s more than enough to sing its praises–without exploding your heart.
Featured Image: KINOLOGY