Week one in our long-awaited Feminist Film Month (if you don’t count last week’s Tootsie) and Jillian chose this quirky tale of Polly, an ‘organisationally pared’ temporary secretary and full time kook.
I’ve personally been looking forward to starting February off right for lots of reasons, not least because January sucked full arse. I know my blog wife feels the same way.
So let’s all put our hands together in a slow clap for this new month and keep that momentum going until at least the Spring, yes?
But to our film, which is Canadian and, incidentally, voted 9th in 1993’s Top 10 Canadian Films of All Time (thanks Wiki!).
As always *Spoilers Ahead*
I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing (1987)
Director: Patricia Rozema
Stars: Sheila McCarthy, Paule Baillargeon, Ann-Marie MacDonald
IMDB Synopsis: Scatterbrained Polly gets a job as a secretary in Gabrielle’s art gallery.
I identify with Polly in many ways, not least because she loves people watching and seems not to have any real direction. That’s so me! We begin this film with Polly speaking directly into the camera, telling us about the job interview she has at Gabrielle’s gallery which leads to an ‘incident’. She doesn’t use that wording but alludes to something that’s happened to her, or because of her.
It’s not really said but I get the impression that Polly is recording herself rather than talking to somebody else and is a little reminiscent of Miranda July in one of my favourite films, You and Me and Everyone We Know (2005) – although I think that’s just in my head.
At the interview, Polly meets Gabrielle, a rather serious French woman who takes Polly on to work in her gallery. During her introduction Polly admits that she isn’t very good at temping and has been described as ‘organisationally pared’. Gabrielle’s gallery is rather small but she definitely knows her stuff and Polly is quickly enamoured.
Polly FYI lives alone in a great little apartment and tells us that she has done so since the age of 21, when both her parents died. She is now 31. She enjoys taking photos and riding around the city on her bicycle. She is also prone to fantasy and often drifts off while waiting for her photographs to develop in her home dark room.
I love her for these flights of fancy which see her in a variety of scenarios that made me LOL for the most part.
Polly is a great character and has an immensely likeable face. It’s so expressive that if the entire film were just of her enormous eyes and face, I’d still have come out satisfied.
One afternoon at the gallery, shortly after Gabrielle has offered Polly a full-time job, despite the fact that several past employers have criticised her work and she herself admits typing isn’t her strong point, Mary turns up.
Mary is a leather jacket wearing painter who clearly shares a history with Gabrielle. When the women go off to talk in one of the gallery rooms, Polly listens and watches them on CCTV, which may or may not be a video camera planted inside a sculpture.
She is intrigued to learn that the women are former lovers and that Mary is still very much into Gabrielle, even though Gabrielle proclaims herself too old for her. They kiss, even though Gabrielle is currently seeing a man.
Polly admits in her video diary that she is falling in love with Gabrielle, hence her fascination but doesn’t really want all the kissing and stuff. Her admiration for her boss seems chaste and it’s not clear what Polly’s own agenda is. She doesn’t even seem particularly jealous of Mary, just curious about the whole relationship.
“BTW you’re wrong.”
One of my favourite scenes occurs shortly after Polly discovers this new facet to her boss, as Gabrielle is walking a potential (male) buyer around the gallery. The two are discussing a collection of paintings by the same artist, and Gabrielle’s enthusiasm and obvious knowledge on the subject manages to sway his opinion, which is very strong (of course it is, he’s a man). Gabrielle does this in such an impressive way that by the end of scene I was nodding my head triumphantly, along with adoring Polly.
Things begin to develop when Polly is invited to Gabrielle’s home for her birthday party. She arrives really late, carrying a big box and all the other guests have already scattered, leaving just Gabrielle and Mary. Mary takes herself to bed while Polly and Gabrielle stay up. Gabrielle is sad and confesses that she’s upset because the one thing she wants she will never have. That thing is talent.
Polly is surprised to learn that her boss is a secret painter and asks to see her work. Gabrielle is hesitant but shows her anyway. Polly is absolutely blown away by the paintings (which are displayed to the viewer as blank glowing canvasses, thus allowing us to visualise this art as we see fit). And as Gabrielle passes out on the couch, she makes the decision to take a piece.
“Oooh this lovely piece will look wonderful in the downstairs toilet.”
Back home with the painting, Polly is inspired by Gabrielle’s secret talent and selects some of her own photographs to send into the gallery under a pseudonym. She hopes that they’ll impress Gabrielle as much as Gabrielle has impressed Polly.
Gabrielle’s painting, meanwhile, is taken into the gallery without her permission by an encouraging Polly. Polly tells Gabrielle she shouldn’t be so shy as she’s clearly brilliant and that one of her associates has already been in and gushed about it.
Quickly, Gabrielle’s names gets out there and she becomes an instant hit on the art scene. She’s delighted, and quickly sheds her humble demeanor.
Polly, unfortunately feels rejected when her photos come into the office and Gabrielle dismisses them halfheartedly as “simple minded”. She calls in sick and stays home burning every one of her photographs.
I’m going to leave this here as all is not as it seems and if you watch I want to leave some things sacred. But to the questions section!
“I really hate your stupid scarf right now.”
Will Polly gain her artistic confidence back? Will she continue to love Gabrielle? Is Gabrielle all she seems?
As I wrote those questions I remembered that the ending was quite harsh but definitely proved that Polly is no doormat, despite her sweet and quirky outer appearance. Gabrielle quickly turns in Polly’s eyes (and therefore ours) from the be all and end all, to something hope-crushing and it’s all there displayed on Polly’s trusting face.
I thought this film was really something special, not least because of Sheila McCarthy (who I swear I know from more films). She plays Polly in an wide-eyed way that doesn’t grate and that’s an achievement in itself. Her daydreams could easily begin to irritate but don’t, even when she’s conducting an orchestra at just the wrong moment.
It’s okay that Polly doesn’t have a plan for life, or any friends or family because she’s something else. Otherworldly? I don’t know what it is, but there’s something about Polly.
“I can’t wait for Keep Fit class later.”
Gabrielle too is a pleasure to watch, and I like that she wears her age well (whatever that actually means). This being the eighties there are lots of giant leather belts, big earrings and arm cuffs – and she rocks them all. As an ageing woman, her lines are clear to see but she’s stunning and interesting, so much more for those things. She also casts quite the shadow as an idol fallen from grace but maybe doesn’t deserve the comeuppance that she receives.
I really liked Mary, and particularly in a scene she shares with Polly, after Polly has given up on her photography dreams. Mary finds a discarded picture taken by Polly and Polly dismisses it, using Gabrielle’s exact words to put it down. Mary accuses her of being harsh, and what does any of that matter if she likes the picture? It’s a wonderful way to look at art.
All those comments synonymous with the art set, what do they matter unless you like the piece? And what if you like a piece nobody else does? It’s still art to you. They don’t explore this much and I would have like Polly to be bolstered by their conversation.
It is all very female-centric of course, which is why it was chosen and hardly any men appear. Or if they do they are only there to illustrate the points of the women. Polly admonishes one in particular when he patronises Gabrielle, labeling her lucky to have got where she has when she first starts becoming famous. That was a triumphant scene.
All in all, I would recommend this film quite highly. I just really like the tone. Plus, the scene where Polly follows the kissing couple around and almost gets busted for peeping on them in the woods made me DIE. Why does this scene remind me so much of The Foxy Merkins, Jill?
My Rating: 4/5.
Did my honey Jillian hear the mermaids singing or was it more of a damp squib to her? Find out here.