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Mermaid in Paris, A
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by Jay Seaver

"Uses a lot of whimsy when it only needs a little."
3 stars

SCREENED VIA THE 2020 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: France doesn't quite produce a steady stream of movies like "A Mermaid in Paris", but probably more than wind up making it to even boutique theaters in the United States. If it feels like there used to be more, when Jean-Pierre Jeunet was working steadily with his movies getting world-wide distribution and some adventurous distributors picking up both animated and live-action movies that had one foot in the surreal. That's likely because it's not easy, with most of them winding up like "Mermaid" - often on the wrong side of the border between cute and cutesy, featuring a French sense of humor that is hard to translate, and so focused on whimsy that it's light on everything else. It's the sort of film one looks at and wants to love only to find that doing so is a bit harder than it looks.

Taking place after a series of 2016 floods that are well-remembered in France but maybe not so much in the rest of the world, it initially introduces Gaspard Snow (Nicolas Duvauchelle), who spends his evenings singing in the semi-secret below-decks section of Flowerburger, the floating restaurant started by his grandmother and currently owned by his aging father (Tchéky Karyo), who has decided to sell despite the nostalgic Gaspard's objection. A couple regulars have disappeared lately, walking straight into the Seine because of some sort of siren call. Apparently, the floods have washed an injured mermaid up the river, whom Gaspard finds and tries to rescue. When she awakes in Gaspard's bathtub, Lula (Marilyn Lima) is shocked to see that he is apparently immune to her song, which generally causes men to fall so deeply in love with her that their hearts explode, and what neither realize is that while he tried to bring her to a hospital the previous night, her song was overheard by a young doctor (Alexis Michalik), with the man's scientist wife Milena (Romane Bohringer) now determined to discover what happened - and perhaps take revenge.

Director Mathias Malzieu is actually best known as a rock star, though he also became an author before he started adapting his stories into films, and Mermaid is a multimedia project as well, with both an album and a book coming out more or less simultaneously. I wonder a bit if it might work out better as an album where he can hit an emotional theme or event, play with it for a few minutes and not really worry too much about the nuts and bolts of how it fits together. The story here makes a certain amount of sense, but Malzieu and co-writer Stéphane Landowski cut a fair amount of corners, telling the audience about Gaspard's heartbreak but seldom showing it affecting his personality, or having him seemingly betray no curiosity about having met an actual mermaid until very late. That Lula has killed is something that the film seldom reckons with, other than it being an easy excuse to make Milena an antagonist, and while there's some interesting stuff going on with Lula never having been in a situation where she could love before and Gaspard's hardened heart, it's a metaphor that Malzieu and Landowski thoroughly lose track and control of by the end of the film..

It's also one of those movies that spends a lot of time on being whimsical, to the point where Gaspard's apartment looks like one of those restaurants that wants to evoke the air of a diner by just having vintage stuff everywhere, while the extreme efforts put into making his "date night" with Lula special quite honestly seems downright oppressive - I suspect that many will want to tell the cast of free-spirit "surprisers" to back the heck off. Even Milena, who is meant to be the grounded and practical force trying to keep them apart, drives the General Lee from The Dukes of Hazzard for no apparent reason at all. Sure, it's often fun - I'd rather a film be colorful and have the design be expressive than the opposite - but, boy, is it a lot.

Especially since the characters at the center show that this movie can carry things when the filmmakers just let their charming stars work, with Nicolas Duvauchelle doing a nice job moving from kind of petulant to flustered when Gaspard meets Lula, filling the bathroom where a lot of scenes take place with constant, jittery motion to make up for how his co-star is stuck in one spot, or playing off Tchéky Karyo as Gaspard's wise but indulgent father. Marilyn Lima, meanwhile, is a ton of fun to watch as a stranger in a strange land, whether watching her first movie or unsure why her voice isn't having the expected deadly effect on Gaspard, and also showing more than a little bit of worry at how Gaspard is delaying her return to the ocean and she can't do anything about it.

She reminds me a bit of a young Julie Delpy, which is no bad thing and an example of how much appeal this film has to work with when it's not trying to cram every little bit of it into every frame. It could do with a little more restraint. It feels like Malzieu wanted to do a whimsical fairy-tale mermaid romance but didn't spend nearly enough effort figuring out how to get all those elements in some sort of balance.

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originally posted: 08/30/20 10:38:20
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2020 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2020 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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