A Year in Shorts Day 104: "Mermaid"
As The Great Oscar Baiter celebrates Valentine’s Day, we’ve covered all sorts of movie romances. Some were sweet, some were sad, some had skunks. But we’ve yet to cover one quite as tragic as today’s short, Aleksandr Petrov’s Mermaid. In fact, a large part of me hesitates to really call it a movie romance at all. But I schedule out the Year in Shorts all the way back during last October and it’s too late to deviate from the path now, so we might as well do it!
Regular readers of the blog might remember the name of Aleksandr Petrov; he was the animator behind the incredibly depressing The Cow, which we covered last month. Well 1997's Mermaid (originally titled Rusalka) is every bit as depressing as that short was, if not more so. In fact, "Just like The Cow, only more so" could be a pretty accurate summary of this short. But I suppose a blog post requires a little more insight than that, so I'll just save the pithy one-liners for Letterboxd. Instead I'll say that Mermaid follows two Orthodox monks- one young, one old- and the bizarre winter they have after the young monk saves a mysterious young woman from drowning.
Much like The Cow, Mermaid makes great use of Petrov's paint-on-glass animation, though I think it's a bit better utilized here. I have some of the same misgivings here as I did there (no doubt made worse by the low quality versions available online), but Mermaid is a step up in every department. For one thing, the film is a lot more colorful. It still has its fair of dreary visuals (which I suppose fits the tone well enough), but the palette is considerably more vibrant. And while I think paint-on-glass animation still isn't great for designing the most expressive of characters, I think it's excellent when it comes to animating subtle movement. There are moments in this film which call to mind a particularly beautiful sequence in Chris Marker's La Jetee in the way it uses minimal motion to express so much. And with that reference to an experimental French short from the 1960s out of the way, I've earned my artsy street cred for the week.
Really, Petrov's style has progressed significantly between the two films. Mermaid was Petrov's third short (his second was The Dream of a Ridiculous Man, which I really think I should see based on the title alone), and he does a lot of interesting things here. Most notable are some of the film's transitions, which work with paint-on-glass perfectly. This is especially nice as Mermaid relies tells a lot of its story through flashbacks and dream sequences, so the transitions make it easy to follow and fun to watch.
Speaking of, let's talk about that story. It's fine! Mermaid has its roots in Slavic folklore, which (if this film is anything to go off of) seems fairly depressing. Mermaid has minimal dialogue (which is good because I couldn't find a version with English subtitles), and so mostly relies on visual storytelling. I will admit that on my first viewing I had difficulty following everything, but if you pay close attention you should be able to figure it out. It's a little predictable, but I suppose this is a film you watch more for the visuals than anything.
And honestly? I think that's enough. As much as I like to focus on it, story isn't everything. Form matters as well as content, and when the form is as well done as it is here, that's certainly worth celebrating. Still, it's true that it's preferable when a film can do both. And I think the Academy agreed, as Mermaid lost the Oscar that year to Geri's Game. But don't feel too bad for Aleksandr Petrov. He'd win a very well-deserved Oscar two years later. And considering some of the competition, that is saying something!
Keep up with the Oscar Baiting here on Letterboxd!
If anyone knows how I can get my hands on a copy of this film that looks as good as the GIFs I found, let me know! As far as I know, there's no legal way to rent or purchase "Mermaid" (or even "The Cow") but I'd love to be proven wrong!
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