"Mermaid / Rusalka": An Urban Fairytale About Teenage Alienation By Thomas Abeltshauser

in 58th Berlinale

by Thomas Abeltshauser

“It happened a long time ago, before I was born. Mama said I that first I was a fish and lived in her stomach”, so introduces us a girl’s voice to this urban fairytale about teenage alienation. It’s the voice of Alisa. Alisa is a mermaid. How could she not be when she is the result of an encounter between a busty young woman nude swimming in the sea and a sailor passing by the deserted beach. Underwater love.

Six years later. Alisa refuses to speak, at least on screen. She is telling the story, though. From an early age she discovers her special talents: She is able to control the weather, move things telekinetically and make wishes come true, sort of. They always turn out differently and often lead to catastrophes. And her biggest dreams don’t fulfill themselves. She never becomes a ballerina and her father remains absent. People are beyond her control.

Some wishes do come true, though: Her village is destroyed by a hurricane so her mother has to move from the seashore to Moscow with her daughter. Life isn’t getting any easier when she is 17. Sent to a special education school because of her refusal to communicate and denied college admission she tries to earn some money as a walking rubber cell phone. At least she doesn’t have to talk and she can do what she is best at: observing people and life. When she witnesses the suicide attempt of a young man jumping off a bridge she saves his life and loses her heart. Sasha, a young business man who makes a fortune by selling properties on the moon, is unappreciative of her devotion to him and prefers blonde and long-legged model-girlfriend Rita.

Mermaid is an urban fairytale about a young girl’s journey through the hardship of adolescence that shines with magic realism and an excess of whimsical vagaries. The comparisons to both Hans Christian Anderson’s fairytale The Little Mermaid and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie are obvious but don’t do the movie justice. It has some ingredients of both works but manages to set its own much quirkier and darker tone. Most notably the lead character, Alisa, played by the brilliant Mariya Shalayeva at age 17 and the sweet Anastasiya Dontsova at age 5, with her quasi autistic behavior, is a much more complex character than the French sugar babe. Alisa tells us about the dark side of being a teenager, of growing up in a world that doesn’t acknowledge extra-ordinary and fights everything that is considered queer. Like its main character, the fairytale matures, gets darker and sexier and loses its child-like sweetness and innocence.

As a sideline the movie tells us about the fast changes in Russia and what that does to its soul. A country torn between its old traditions and love for melancholy and hysterias’ of turbo-capitalism in which everything can and will be sold. Even if it is as unreachable as the moon. In Sasha’s depression and alienation lies all the critique of Russia’s wirtschaftswunder.

Though Russian helmer Anna Melikyan has a background in commercials like Jeneut, the visual slickness and digital effects (like the billboards ‘talking’ to Alisa) are never ends in themselves but serve as means for the emotional depth and richness of the story and heighten its fantasy appeal. It is, after all, Alisa’s story with all her imagination.

The shocking end of the film is definitely not Amélie. Adolescence is over. Time to say goodbye, little Alisa.