Multi-talented writer and director Mathias Malzieu, who is known for his success as a novelist and musician as well as filmmaker, returns to this year’s virtual Fantasia Film Festival with a delightful grown-up fairytale. Malzieu’s previous animated film, Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart, which he co-directed with Stéphane Berla, was featured at the festival in 2014. This year, his live action A Mermaid in Paris captures the charm and adventurousness of an animated feature and recalls the hopeful optimism of childhood with a romantic fantasy story. The film’s plot is unashamedly straightforward and simple, borrowing from familiar mermaid mythology and popular romance movie formulas, but it places this tale on a fantastical and colorful backdrop that makes the predictable story seem fresh and heartfelt.
A Mermaid in Paris reveals a good bit about its story just from its title. Sticking close to the fairytale/rom-com formula, the film brings the mystique and charm of a magical fantasy setting to Paris, creating an alternate version of the real world that allows for mythical creatures and magic. A downcast loner named Gaspard (Nicolas Duvauchelle) is working as a singer at his family’s nightclub, the Flowerburger. However, the club isn’t quite the hopping bohemian hub that it used to be, and, as financial constraints weigh heavily upon Gaspard and his father (Tchéky Karyo), the dream of the Flowerburger is slowly fading away. One night, Gaspard happens upon an injured mermaid named Lula (Marilyn Lima), who has washed up onto the street by the Seine. Gaspard insists on helping Lula recover, despite Lula’s warnings that all men who get close to her fall so deeply in love that their hearts explode. She has already been the cause of a number of deaths in the city, and a doctor named Milena (Romane Bohringer) is even seeking revenge on Lula after her boyfriend’s death. Gaspard, however, is immune to Lula’s charm, claiming that his heart already “exploded” years ago and that he is emotionally numb. In the limited time that they can spend together, the perfectly imperfect pair both have something to teach each other about love and letting go.
The story is warm and sentimental, but definitely not the most original. A few painfully obvious moments in the film almost seem to boast their fairytale clichés, such as the predictable conversation in which Gaspard tells the wide-eyed, childlike Lula that his heart has long been broken and he cannot fall in love, and Lula insists that she must return home within a certain number of days or she will die. From their initial conversation in Gaspard’s aquatic-themed bathroom, the lovers’ story is, for better or worse, set in stone. As hero and heroine, Gaspard and Lula aren’t particularly new or complex, either. Lula’s humorous and endearing mishaps in trying to figure out human inventions, like cigarettes and soap, seem to pop up directly out of mermaid-based fairytales of decades past. Marilyn Lima has a charming screen-presence that fits right in with the fantastical set, but she isn’t given much to work with as far as developing Lula’s character. Gaspard is a bit more dynamic as he navigates the possibility of failure and the reality of letting go. However, with vague details about his past that don’t fully explore the character’s journey, Gaspard is much more of a storybook hero conglomerate than a fresh, interesting protagonist. Duvauchelle easily and believably shifts between Gaspard’s initial angsty gloom and his childlike glee upon finding a mermaid. The romantic tension between the two is based on tried-and-true character conflicts that will be a safe bet with most audiences, creating an emotional landscape that is easy to follow.
Aside from the protagonists, there is Gaspard’s meddling neighbor, Rossy (Rossy de Palma), who at first comes across as a romantically unsatisfied side-character who can’t mind her own business. De Palma brings a delightful wit and strength to the character, however, endowing the film with some of its most humorous moments. A Mermaid in Paris has an interesting time developing its villain, Milena, who isn’t granted a lot of sympathy as she understandably seeks revenge on her boyfriend’s killer. As one of the few characters in the film who is given a truly unique conflict, Milena is unfortunately villainized in her newfound singleness and grief. In her white doctor’s coat, she takes on the role of the stereotypical scientist-villain who wants to destroy the mythical creature for evil purposes, despite the fact that she is simply searching for answers in the face of a tragic and unexpected death. Overall, A Mermaid in Paris does grant its villain a bit of grace, but it is unfortunate that the grieving character is villainized.
Despite its familiar plot, A Mermaid in Paris is quite sweet and enjoyable thanks to its creative set-design and romantic lighting. The film holds the charm and wonder of an early fantasy film like A Trip to the Moon (1902), and, much like those early films, it is much more about creating a dazzling spectacle and appealing to the senses than it is about crafting a complex narrative. A Mermaid in Paris begins with a storybook, an image that is perhaps overused but nevertheless sets the right tone for this fantastical film. The image is followed by a fun and colorful claymation sequence as the opening credits roll, introducing a man who we will soon learn is our hero, Gaspard, as he dashes around Paris on roller skates with bright yellow wheels. With the splash of a puddle, the sequence transitions into the main, live-action portion of the film as Gaspard makes his way to the Flowerburger. Gespard’s apartment, filled with figurines, cartoonish appliances, and rubber ducks of all shapes and sizes, combines the world of an artist with the imagination of a young boy. A twinkling, charming score sets the tone as Lula and Gaspard race through Paris in a tuk-tuk, passing unashamedly romantic imagery under a blue-green filter that creates the feeling of being inside a mystical aquarium playhouse. There are even a few musical sequences that add a jazzy flair. One cannot help but be charmed by the whimsical tone of A Mermaid in Paris, a vital element of the film that makes up for its simplistic plot and characters.
A Mermaid in Paris succeeds with a solid aesthetic style that supports a familiar, easy-to-follow story. It sets the same fantastical tone as films like Moulin Rouge (2001) and The Shape of Water (2017), minus their complex plots. Still, one cannot help but fall under the film’s spell, as its fantasy world seems so enticing and wondrous compared to what the real world is facing right now. It’s an easygoing, feel-good movie that is not ashamed to boast its childlike assurance of love.
Currently screening during the 2020 Fantasia International Film Festival.
For more information, head to the official A Mermaid in Paris festival website.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.