by Penelope MacGillivray – University of Calgary
From characters that lack meaning to the uncertainties surrounding the genre, Patricia Rozema’s I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing (1897) has been received by critics as more of a whimsical female journey rather than a film that takes a fresh perspective on feminism. In this essay I would like to challenge the notion that the film fails to deliver meaning, by looking at the way Rozema introduces the concept of voyeurism as a means to illuminate women’s struggles with identity. This is executed through her choice to utilize the stylistic elements of technology, fantasy, and voice over and dialogue, which allow the audience to become an observer through the female protagonist. Ultimately the spectator is offered the opportunity to indulge in the visual pleasures of looking, but without objectifying women in a sexual manner and instead illuminate real obstacles that were prevalent for women at the time. I will attempt to achieve this by first looking at a number of reviews that suggest the film lacks in substance and then outline the way that Rozema uses Laura Mulvey’s perspective on visual pleasure and narrative cinema in the film. As I mentioned earlier, I will be exploring Rozema’s use of stylistic characteristics and will focus on several of those elements that invite the viewer to embark on a voyeuristic journey either though Polly (the protagonist) or on their own. These features include video and photography, Polly’s daydream sequences, and inviting voice over, all of which are used as catalyst to observe and in the end bring to the forefront the challenges surrounding identity. The ultimate goal is to express through this paper Rozema’s voyeuristic themes, which engage the audience with feminist material in a less aggressive manner, and ultimately as an outsider looking into and becoming a part of Polly’s world. This allows the viewer to share Polly’s perspective, though the power of observation and leaves a lasting impression regarding individuality.
Trying to identify the exact meaning in a film can certainly be an intimidating task especially when there can be so many elements used to express it. Looking at Mermaids, it is easy to see that this is exactly the type of film that leaves critics a little ambivalent towards its thematic goals. Critics will admit that a discourse with feminism exists within the film, but question the ways in which it is utilized and delivered to an audience. In Michael O’Pray’s article published in the “Monthly Film Bulletin” a year after the film’s release, he makes several strong claims regarding its feminist values. He states, “In the context of contemporary feminism, however, it can be a double edged weapon, and more often than not becomes another sexist scenario.” (p.81) His comment challenges the dynamic between protagonist Polly and the lesbian characters as victim to their deceptions, which cause him to question what the style of film actually is. He continues, “Its main problem, in fact, is an indecisiveness as to what kind of creature it is. With the exception of Polly, the two main characters (it is basically a three-hander) are cardboard caricatures.” (81)
He undoubtedly has concerns regarding the authenticity behind calling Mermaids a feminist film due to Polly’s interactions with what he perceives as sexist scenarios. In the end, however, he doesn’t deny that there is an attempt to create a feminist world, but he feels Rozema fails to produce a concrete version of one. On the other hand, there are other critics who don’t even bother to point out the feminist attributes of the film, but instead are fixated on the idea that Polly’s actions are too arbitrary to take seriously. Vincent Canby’s 1987 review for the New York Times cautioned viewers of its overly impulsive nature stating, “Whimsy is unreliable. Like a jolly drunk in a bar, it can turn suddenly aggressive. Very soon Polly’s innocence loses its charm, and watching this movie is like being cornered by a whimsical, 500-pound elf.” (NYT) Like O’Pray’s argument that the film lacks in a substantial relationship with feminism, Canby labels Polly as a lackluster individual, due to her overt comedic characteristics. Each critique reflects upon the film as endearing, but evidently failing to deliver to the audience a profound message surrounding the female narrative. The argument that Mermaids was unable to produce an important feminist message is one I’d like to dispute due to the overwhelming female perspective explored in the film. In particular, the apparent use of elements in an innovative manner that go against the grain, such as Rozema’s clever utilization of Polly as a voyeur. She allows this zany character to take on the role of spectator while providing a unique female perspective that is less intrusive and without the intentions to sexually objectify those around her. Polly invites the audience into her world as a means to understand the challenges she faces as a woman trying to mold a personality and embrace individuality. Critics may assert that the film is without substance or clear direction, but it can’t be denied that the feminist material is presented in a way that objects to classical modes of thinking that has conquered cinema for decades. In order to fully explore this claim, it is important to look to film theorists who have studied the concept of visual pleasure within cinema as a guide to explore the film’s use of voyeurism in an unconventional manner.
When it comes to theorizing about cinema there is no shortage of scholars ready to offer up an opinion, and Laura Mulvey was surely no exception. Her female presence within the scholarly film world may have represented the minority, but her essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” offers an insightful and controversial look into the way women are represented on the screen. More specifically, the essay explored fascination a with film and it provides an explanation that proposes the idea that the male audiences tap into their preexisting captivation with looking, and the female image is used to satisfy that desire. She states, “In their traditional exhibitionist role, women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness.” (pg.715) Looking at this idea that movies consistently use the female image as a tool to evoke visual pleasure reveals several ways in Mermaids that Rozema uses Polly’s female lens as a way to deconstruct these types of voyeuristic activities. By specifically looking to Mulvey’s perspective on Freud’s concept of ‘scopophilia’ we can see an array of feminist qualities shining through the simple contradictions that are present every time Polly engages in voyeuristic behavior. In order to highlight these instances, it is important to identify what Mulvey coins the voyeuristic-scopophilic look associated with cinema. She breaks them down into three distinct looks and describes them as follows: “that of the camera as it records the profilmic event, that of the audience as it watches the final product, and that of the characters at each other within the screen illusion.” (pg.721) These three looks work together to create a male fantasy world with which the viewer can peer into yet maintain a distance from in order to imitate a peeping Tom relationship with the film. Rozema does just the opposite and instead uses certain stylistic elements to break through this patriarchal illusion thus inviting the audience to join Polly on her quest of self-discovery.
So far I recognized the misconception surrounding Mermaids, as a film that doesn’t properly spotlight feminist ideologies. Critics have gone as far as labeling it another female comedy that falls short in articulating to its audience anything profound or progressive. In order to prove this incorrect I’ve dissected Laura’s Mulvey’s Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema by analyzing sections of her perspective concerning female image and the “looks” connected to scopophilia. Her argument surrounding voyeuristic intentions aid in highlighting elements used in Mermaids that challenge traditional modes of male dominated filmmaking, thus confirming its feminist qualities. These methods include video and photography, fantasy sequences, and voiceovers, all which are used as a means to connote a voyeuristic attitude but that are also completely self aware, thus breaking the scopophilic illusion. I’ll begin by exploring how technology is used in the film as a voyeuristic instrument, that instead of objectifying pulls the audience into a world operated by Polly’s pursuit of a personal identity. At the beginning of the film the viewer is instantly aware of the presence of a video camera as static lines turn into an image of slippers and move up out of focus until eventually revealing Polly. Looking directly into the camera, she begins to set up a context of her life, stating her name and type of employment. From the very moment the film starts there is already a breaking of the fourth wall, which completely goes against creating an illusion for the audience to become an active member in scopophilia. Instead the viewer is given a chance to get to know Polly on an intimate level as she calls all the shots, maneuvering the viewer through her life, ultimately choosing what the audience will see. Polly not only uses the video camera as an outlet to discourse with the audience but also as a means to spy on Danielle and Mary in the art gallery. Utilizing the camera in this manner also directly relates to the concept of scopophilia, but is executed in a much less traditional manner. Several devices are used to distract the audience as she peeps in on their conversation.
The first is prior knowledge that Gabrielle is aware of the camera due to an earlier scene when her and Polly set it up. This in a sense eliminates the need for permission considering Gabrielle is aware of the fact that the live feed transfers to a television in Polly’s office. This evidently transforms Polly’s perversion into an innocent curiosity that is encouraged due to the convenient placement of the camera. Also, when the two do embrace they are for the most part off screen, which denies the audience the pleasure in looking, but instead places the focus on Polly’s reaction, as it cuts back and forth between her and them. The use of photography is also a predominate way in which the film explores voyeurism, as the viewer encounters Polly both using her camera and looking at her photographs. There are several sequences that show her engaging with those she photographs, such as when she waves hello to workers scaling a skyscraper, and poses a mother and her baby. This brings into question Mulvey’s discourse with Freud’s theory when she describes his thoughts stating, “He associated scopophilia as taking other people as objects, subjecting them to a controlling curious gaze.” (pg.713) Polly does just the opposite either through communicating her presence or having it be discovered. An example of this is in a scene in which Polly takes on a peeping Tom persona, as she follows a couple through a park snapping photos of them as they kiss and eventually lay down under a tree. Just as the audience is given the permission to become a spectator, this is swiftly interrupted when Polly is caught by the couple, and awkwardly gestures that she is taking pictures of the landscape. The use of these technologies in the film set up voyeuristic pursuits that instead of representing male desires illuminate female insecurities with sex and intimacy. It would appear that for the most part the elements of technology used in the film explore the “look” of character upon character, however the other two elements of voiceover and fantasy sequences explore the “look” that defines the audiences’ relationship with the images on screen.
The voiceovers in the film continually challenge the spectator to question Polly’s motives as she narrates to the viewer her thoughts and feelings surrounding her encounters with the curator and her personality. She describes herself saying things like, “I guess I was never so terrific at talking and everything or I guess that makes me spinster or something.” (Rozema, 1987) There is a lot of uncertainty surrounding these types of comments because Polly makes them sound like they could just as easily be questions as they are truthful reflections of her character. Although the viewer is confronted with images of Polly on screen, attaching sexual intentions to her is quickly erased because she humanizes herself posing questions onto the audience that reflect her identity. Polly’s insistent questioning of the viewer shatters the illusion that is needed in order to diminish the female images presented in the film. This breaking of the film’s facade is also expressed several times throughout the film in the form of Polly’s fantasies or daydreams, which embody Polly’s conflict with acceptance of who she is and the yearning to be someone different. There are two sequences that best showcase her desires to either mold into a sophisticated debutante of society or simply remain a free spirit who embraces life as it happens. The first shows her climbing a skyscraper without any type of harness and eventually falling only to suddenly obtain the ability to fly as she smiles and enjoys the freedom of the wind in her hair. The second scenario shows her and Gabrielle walking through a park carrying parasols and dressed in clothes from the 1800s. Polly talks about the meaning of attraction and even references Freud’s theories on polymorphous perversity. At the end of the sequence, Gabrielle begins to say “Polly you sound so…” before she is interrupted by Polly who answers “intelligent and enlightened.” (1897) Each one of these daydreams are embedded with multiple layers of meaning regarding Polly’s challenge as a woman in the world searching for her place and the clash of staying true to one’s self while fitting into societal expectations. All of these stylistic elements break free from the usual representation of women on screen by taking the concept of voyeurism and using it to explore female trials and tribulations, and above all provide a unique feminist experience for the viewer.
When it comes to exploring gender themes on screen there will always be a backlash of criticism regarding how it is presented and especially whether or not the content is indeed authentic enough to be considered feminist. I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing is an example of a film that had a hard time resonating as feminist material due to what critics felt was an impulsive main character, a one-dimensional supporting cast and a narrative that lacked in meaning. I have taken on the challenge in this essay to prove that Patricia Rozema’s film not only contains feminist attributes, but uses them to challenge the way films tend to exploit the female image. In order to outline how this is done, I looked to Laura Mulvey’s essay on “Visual Pleasure”, particularly the sections on voyeurism and scopophilia and identified how these ideals were not present in I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing but used as a way to celebrate female identity, not eliminate it. Mulvey’s perspective illustrates the innate desire to obtain pleasure from looking and the female body has monopolized cinema as the main satisfaction to this need. She also describes three looks of the cinema that create a scopophilic atmosphere for the viewer by constructing an illusion that provides the tools to objectify women on screen. By exploring theories surrounding visual pleasure I was able to identify Rozema’s use of stylistic elements that either took on deconstructed voyeuristic role such as video footage and photography, or added humanizing element to the female form, such as the voice over and fantasy sequences. Each time the viewer was subjected to Polly’s voyeuristic actions, her innocent charismatic personality would confirm her lack of intentions to transform what she looked at into an object. Ultimately, I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing not only celebrated the female voice but also allowed the audience to join Polly on her adventures into a world that addresses individuality and the realities of being an independent woman in a society that bestows certain expectations. What makes the film so groundbreaking is the self-reflective manner that is constantly being exposed to the audience; Polly poses it perfectly when she asks the ambiguous question, “Isn’t life the strangest thing you have ever seen?” (1987).
Canby, Vincent. “I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing (1987).” The New York Times, accessed September 11, 1987. http://movies.nytimes.com/movie/review?
I’ve Heard The Mermaids Singing. DVD. Directed by Patricia Rozema. 1987; Los Angeles, CA: New Line Home Entertainment 2004.
Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”. Film Theory and Criticism. Ed. Leo Braudy,
Marshall Cohen. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 2009. 418-426. Print.
O’Pray, Michael. “I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing”, Monthly Film Bulletin, ISSN 0027-0407, 03/1988, Volume 55, Issue 650, p. 81