This “Amelie”-style, slightly surreal or perhaps “magically realistic” modern Russian fairy tale reflects the unification of Europe and a new generation of filmmakers influenced by world cinema. Here, Moscow feels like any cosmopolitan, 21st century European city, and while some citizens struggle to find menial work, for others, capitalism thrives so fervently, they engage in a real estate venture selling off land parcels on the moon! Still, at its core, traditional Russian doom and gloom reign supreme in a story of suicide attempts, alienation, the power to make wishes come true (for good and for bad) and perhaps the most upbeat happenstance (and the most inspired concept), the grace of dying on the happiest day of your life. It is a film full of ideas and commentary on modern Russian life, but where it loses some of its impact, is in too many threads to tie together.
Director/Screenwriter Anna Melikyan’s (“Mars”) artfully shot “Mermaid” traces Alisa’s troubled life from her birth to a poor single mother, to a short while after her 18th birthday. Alisa, portrayed believably by Masha Shalaeva, is an alienated, other worldly urban warrior trying to make a living in Moscow. She has physically (as well as figuratively) lost her voice after a traumatic incident in childhood. More Holden Caulfield than Amelie, boyish figured, pale, blonde Alisa dresses in uni-sex cargo pants and t-shirts and to her mother’s dismay doesn’t exercise one iota of feminine wiles. She exudes an immense amount of angst, anger and hopelessness for one so young – distancing herself even from her mother and grandmother. For her, life is definitely not a party, though she briefly gets a kick out of exploring the big city of Moscow after growing up in a small seaside town. The accumulation of life’s hardships weighs heavily on Alisa, who despite her muteness, narrates the film.
At the point where the action gets going, Alisa seems to have finally found a dream job where she can hide all day inside a giant foam rubber cell phone costume, wandering anonymously through streets abundant with positive, encouraging billboard slogans leering at her with bitter irony. In fact, the ads are so prolific and invasive, her entire high rise apartment building is enveloped in a giant advertisement. In one of many clever, quirks (Alisa also dyes her hair bright green) in the film, the hole Alisa cuts to reveal her bedroom window aligns perfectly with the ad’s model’s right eye.
So while Alisa wallows in her routine of depression and seaside fantasies about the father she has never met, she stumbles upon and saves the life of an upwardly mobile young “moon property salesman” who is about to jump off a bridge despite the fact that he has a good job, a posh apartment with a giant fish tank, parties with Moscow hipsters every night and a model girlfriend. The story reaches dicey territory as Alisa develops a school girl crush on Sasha (Yevgeniy Ciganov) and her mood improves – at least until she figures out that the feeling isn’t mutual. While the ending has a sort of beautiful irony to it, what gets us there in the last third of the film, feels less magical and more contrived than its supposed to. Alisa’s transforming obsession with Sasha seems a bit unlikely from a character so fiercely cynical, but hormones have been known to do strange things to teenage girls.