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by Kathi Maio

Neither Fish Nor Fowl—Nor Fully Human?

IN THE interests of full disclosure, as well as TMI (Too Much Information, not Three Mile Island), I would like to acknowledge that my bathroom is populated by mermaids. Okay, I admit that they are not real. They are just examples of world folk art—mostly from Mexico and Latin America, but also from even more distant lands like Bali—all showing a human female face and torso attached to a fish-tailed lower body. Clearly, just the existence of the many sculptures, plaques, and tiles from around the world are proof that the mermaid is a figure of fascination for many.

She has existed in the human imagination since ancient times. In Mexico, she is called La Sirena. But whether termed Atargatis or Derceto, apsara or nereid, Undine or Mélusine, she is a powerful figure of religion and folklore. She embodies the mystery, danger, and beauty of the sea, but her personality and motivations vary greatly according to who is telling the tale, and when. She can be the cruel temptress who through physical beauty or siren song lures sailors to their death (and possible dismemberment), or she can be a figure of purity and grace who provides aid and succor to lost souls. After Christianity arrived on the scene, many mermaid stories superimposed a subtext related to a soulless female seeking spiritual redemption through marriage to a human male. But, religion or no, in many of the tales of shape-shifting seamaids, that figure remained a wild and free symbol of the feminine.

Many variants of the mermaid story have appeared on screen since the early days of the industry. In 1914, director Herbert Brenon and his aquatically gifted star, Annette Kellerman, made a daring and expensive film in Bermuda called Neptune's Daughter. Alas, except for a couple of segments held in archives, the film is considered lost. In the 1940s the film siren—exemplified by Ann Blyth in Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid (1948) and by Glynis Johns in Miranda (1948)—was sweet and saucy, disrupting and enlivening the staid existence of the middle-aged men (William Powell and Griffith Jones, respectively) who discover her. Played for comedy, it was mermaid as mid-life crisis.

In 1961, Curtis Harrington (clearly under the spell of Film Noir and Val Lewton) made a bizarre beatnik mood piece starring a very young and sweet-faced Dennis Hopper. In Night Tide, Hopper's lonely young sailor falls under the spell of a beautiful young woman who plays the mermaid at the local pier sideshow. But is she a real mermaid? And is she also a serial murderer of her lovers? Even at the end of the movie you may be a bit unclear about who did what to whom, and what that poor mixed-up mermaid was about. The climax and denouement—along with much of the rest of the movie—makes precious little sense. (Although if you listen to Harrington and Hopper chat on the commentary track of the modern DVD, at least you will learn what Harrington thought he was depicting.) In this one, mer-mania is a dissociative disorder.

Over the years movie mermaids have flapped and fluttered from rom-com beauty (Splash, 1984) to kiddie cartoon heroine (Little Mermaid, 1989; Ponyo, 2008) to tween girl BFF (Aquamarine, 2006) to blood-thirsty siren turned B-movie monster (the delightfully cheesy and seldom seen She Creature of 2001).

A personal favorite, which I reviewed in these pages more than fifteen years ago, is The Secret of Roan Inish (1994), a very atypical John Sayles film that interwove the Celtic legend of the selkie with the hardscrabble lives of post WWII fisherfolk of Ireland.

The selkie is an intriguing variation of the fish-woman mermaid, as she is a seal capable of shedding her phocidaen coat and taking human form, as she chooses. According to legend, any man who can steal the shed skin of the selkie can hold her in thralldom, forcing her to become his bride and bear his children…that is, until she finds her animal skin again; at which time she abandons hearth, home, and even children, without remorse, to return to her life of freedom in the sea.

John Sayles, a filmmaker usually associated with very American and urban and progressively political themes, knew that to tell The Secret of Roan Inish well, he would need to anchor his story in the harsh yet beautiful Irish seacoast and in the difficult lives of working-class Irish people. Irish writer and director Neil Jordan knew the same. Shooting his latest film, Ondine, was something he purposefully wanted to accomplish but a short distance from his own Irish home, in and around the fishing town of Castletownbere in County Cork.

Although some of Mr. Jordan's least (artistically) successful—but most high-profile—films have been overtly the stuff of fantasy (think Interview with the Vampire and High Spirits), some of his more interesting and obscure cinematic work (like The Miracle or his loopy but fascinating variations on the tale of Little Red Riding Hood in The Company of Wolves) also touch on the power of fantasy and myth.

In Ondine, the filmmaker explores how fantasy has the power to transform. Belief in magic is more important than actual fairy dust in allowing beaten-down humanity to hope for better and to heal their dispirited lives.

The film begins in the bleak waters off the Irish Coast. A fisherman named Syracuse is pulling in his trawling net, expecting it to be all but empty, as it usually is. Syracuse (Colin Farrell), a recovering alcoholic, expects little from the sea or the rest of his life. He is so well known in his community for the drunken foolishness of his youth that he is called not Syracuse, but "Circus, the Clown," by almost everyone in the village. This even includes, at times, his bright but sickly daughter Annie (Alison Barry)—the one person he adores, and who loves him back.

But on this particular day, his net comes up with a few fish, and also with a woman. He thinks she is a corpse, but it is soon apparent that she is alive, albeit fearful of being seen, and disinclined to discuss who she is and where she came from. Still, she gratefully takes refuge in the abandoned cottage that belonged to Syracuse's late mother.

Thereafter, while young Annie is having a dialysis treatment, her "da" tries to entertain her with a vague retelling of his unusual fishing expedition, but it is Annie who supplies the mythic context for the woman's appearance. She must be a mermaid or a selkie, she decides. And the evidence begins to pile up that this might be true. First, the mysterious beauty allows Syracuse to call her Ondine (the name associated with a variety of German and French mermaid tales that have been retold through operas and ballets). Then, just like a mermaid who grants wishes, Ondine (Alicja Bachleda) starts to bring good fortune to the rather woebegone Syracuse.

But how extensive are her powers? When Ondine sings on his boat, the seaman's lobster pots and fishing nets come up brimming with a valuable catch. All well and good. But young Annie, who also wants to believe in magic, has her own wish. She hopes that the lovely woman can somehow cure her kidney disease and make her well again.

Mr. Jordan knows how to give even a fairy tale a quite realistic (intermittently even grim and depressing) foundation. But he never forgets the lyrical touches, either. And his love of his homeland and her melancholic yet resilient people is evident in every shot of this film. Eventually the filmmaker feels the need to resolve his storyline—which I will not discuss further—through episodes of melodrama and violence, before ending it on an appropriately hopeful note. However, this moody if minor fable is still a pleasure to watch.

The performances are all lovely. Colin Farrell is surprisingly good as a loser who begins to believe his luck is turning. (With all the tabloid stories over the last few years, it is easy to forget how talented Mr. Farrell is.) Ms. Bachleda gives a rather opaque performance, much of the time. But as a possible changeling from the sea, her enigmatic affect is not at all inappropriate. Young Alison Barry, in her first screen role, is a natural as the brave yet vulnerable Annie. And Stephen Rea (a Neil Jordan regular) is quite delightful in a small wry performance as the village priest whose confessional must substitute for Syracuse's AA meeting.

I think that some fantasy fans will be disappointed by Ondine. I was not. For the film shows that shape-shifting is just one kind of magical metamorphosis. Another is the power of belief—in ourselves and those we love—to transform our lives.

Canadian filmmaker Vincenzo Natali (Cube) does not, I feel sure, have any interest in making a mermaid movie. (More's the pity.) But the talented director has acknowledged that "the notion of bonding with something not entirely human goes back to ancient myth. It has always existed and I was fascinated by the idea that those mythic concepts—mermaids, centaurs, chimeras, human hybrids that have tantalized people's imaginations for thousands of years—could exist in the real world through new science."

It is precisely this idea that Mr. Natali explores in his sf-horror flick, Splice. Set in the world of speculative corporate bioengineering, where geeks and suits have big dreams of magic bullet cures and golden egg profits, the story focuses on two young, hip scientists named Clive and Elsa (Bride of Frankenstein references, anyone?) played by Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley. The committed couple are equally devoted to their scientific pursuits at their Nucleic Exchange Research and Development (yep, that's NERD to you) laboratory. There, they attempt to synthesize medicinal proteins and other compounds by developing organisms jerry-rigged from DNA cocktails of primordial soup and gestated in biomechanical thermal incubators.

To date, their proudest achievement has been two globbish critters that look like a cross between an inchworm and an overly ambitious silicone dildo. Fred and Ginger, as they call the male and female, are supposed to ensure Clive and Elsa's fame, as well as the bottom line of their corporate overseers. But nature, even of the cooked-up variety, is unpredictable. And when the big press conference reveal goes awry, the fate of Elsa and Clive's science is in question.

Still, rather than step back and rethink, Elsa forges ahead with a daring and wildly unethical experiment that adds female human DNA into the genetic goulash. The resulting rapidly growing and unpredictable entity is a strange and striking amalgamation of bird, amphibian, and who knows what else, along with an endearingly wide-eyed Homo sapiens girl. Dren (nerd, backwards)—played as child by Abigail Chu and as an adolescent by Delphine Chanéac—is increasingly dangerous, yet utterly adorable. But along with a quick mind and mercurial will, Elsa's strange test-tube offspring quickly develops some rather disconcerting physical attributes which include a poisonous stinger and angelic (or are they demonic?) wings that sprout at will.

Although the plot eventually devolves into rather unimaginative and derivative horror (that is nonetheless not gory or gruesome enough to satisfy true splatter fans), Splice is filled with enough ideas and imagination to qualify as a must-see. The special effects never take over, as befits the film's modest production budget. And even Dren's performance seems, thankfully, more Chanéac than CGI. Brody and Polley both bring a seriousness of purpose to their portrayal of the ambitious geneticists, too. Their authenticity lends an air of substance to what might have been just another risible creature feature in the hands of lesser actors and under the direction of a filmmaker with less skill and style than Mr. Natali.

I appreciated that all of the film's humor seemed intentional—down to the puns, allusions, and references to earlier horror and sf classics. (And who else but these two would still be driving an AMC Gremlin?) But I do wish that Natali and his co-scripters Antoinette Terry Bryant and Doug Taylor had managed to do even more with the themes they introduce related to the challenges of modern parenting.

After all, bad parenting creates even more monsters than bad science—and doesn't even require an advanced degree.

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