Our Rating: ★★★☆☆
L Factor: Lesbian Film
Short Take: Polly gets a job in an art gallery, developing a crush on the owner
Alternate Titles:
Year: 1987
Duration: 81 min
Language: Canada/English
Director: Patricia Rozema
Writer: Patricia Rozema
Starring: Sheila McCarthy, Paule Baillargeon, Ann-Marie MacDonald, Richard Monette, John Evans, Brenda Kamino

I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing Trailer

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I've Heard the Mermaids SingingI distinctly remember the first time I saw Desert Hearts: in 1986 a friend and I got lost on our way to the Denver movie house where it was playing. Having to buy tickets for a later viewing, we happily wandered the theater’s Victorian neighborhood. It was a magical spring night, Desert Hearts went on to be a classic lesbian film, and my friend went on to become the first woman I slept with.

On the other hand, I only vaguely recall circumstances around I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing. When in the late 80’s did I first see this Canadian film? Was it shown on campus or at our now-defunct Art Cinema? Did I go with a friend or by myself? Although I can’t recall these specifics, I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing (1987) shaped me in ways Desert Hearts never did.

Directed by Patricia Rozema (When Night is Falling, Grey Gardens), I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing centers on Polly (Sheila McCarthy), an odd 31-year-old, self-proclaimed “spinster” and “person Friday” who holds a stream of temporary administrative jobs in Toronto. She’s hired on long-term by Gabrielle (Paule Baillargeon), the shallow, self-centered owner of a contemporary art gallery. Polly develops a severe intellectual crush on Gabrielle, who she calls “The Curator.” While I had remembered their early scenes together as funny—Gabrielle proof-reading Polly’s poor typing and the infamous Japanese restaurant—this time around, Gabrielle’s self-absorption seemed simply cruel while Polly’s inelegance was painful to watch.

I was, however, still quite amused by the film’s purposefully pretentious art critiques. And—sadly—I could still relate to Polly’s unrequited attraction to Gabrielle and yes, it is still empowering to see a lesbian relationship, even a dysfunctional one, on screen.

For me, though, the crux of Mermaids is Polly’s transformation. The first set of transformations are temporary: her regular lapses into rich fantasies filled with soaring music and personal heroics. While these fantasies are entertaining and were probably fun to film, Polly’s true transformation comes when she is behind her camera. There, Polly is confident and inspired. Using her kitchen as a dark room, she fills her modest apartment with the results of her creativity, plastering its walls with black-and-white prints.

As a young woman in my late twenties, I was moved by clumsy, self-conscious Polly, a protagonist who none-the-less who believed strongly enough in her art to put it first in her life. I left the movie theater knowing I wanted to do the same.

I won’t give away further plot details of the film, other than to say that obstacles and intrigue arise. The dialogue is playful, the pain is real, and Rozema’s quirks, colors, and camera angles further enhance the film.

One last admission: Back in 1988, I had a mad crush on Mary (Ann-Marie MacDonald), Gabrielle’s girlfriend, who appears mid-way in the film with her dark eyes and black leather jacket. Watching Mermaids twenty-three years later, I was taken aback by the character’s over-moussed hair and overly-studded leather jacket. Instead of looking sexy, she looked, well, horribly ‘80s.

Yet, in the way that the world cycles round and re-connects us, at the same time I began reviewing this film, I was listening to a book on tape called The Way the Crow Flies. Much of the story is told from the perspective of a tom-boyish elementary school girl. The book’s author, I discovered, was none other than this same Ann-Marie MacDonald, who also wrote the celebrated novel Fall On Your Knees. I googled her photograph on-line. She’s hotter than ever. And a damn good writer.

Creative synchronicity abounds.


Once a prolific social satirist (last century, her parody The Butches of Madison County won a 1995 Lambda Literary award), Ellen Orleans now writes fiction, non-fiction, and half-fiction. Her story “Outreach” won the 2007 Gertrude Press chapbook competition, while her fable “Comfort” appears in Primal Picnics (Jennifer Heath, ed., Whole World Press, 2010). Ellen’s writing and video projects have been published in wig-leaf, Trickhouse, Palimpsest, Dante’s Heart, sub-scribe, The Washington Post, and GirlJock Magazine, among others. She’s currently writing Prayer for Dew, prose pieces about growing up Jewish in New Jersey, and Pedestal, narratives and ruminations on her parents’ marriage and mother’s death. In addition to writing, Ellen runs Boulder’s Yellow Pine Reading Series, builds box art, looks for birds, and stumps for zero waste.