Dir: Anna Melikyan. Russia, 2007. 118 mins.
Azerbaijani director Anna Melkian's second feature opens Berlin' Panorama section with a World Cinema Director's award from Sundance and solid box office at home in Russia under its belt (her first, Mars, was also shown in Panorama at Berlin).
A coming-of-age fairytale with dark undertones, Mermaid is delivered in a light, bantering tone - a first-person narrative of the life of Alissa (played by Donstova as a child and Shalaeva from adolescence onwards). With the insouciant approach of a young director who doesn't particularly care whether everything in her film makes sense or follows the rules, Mermaid looks certain for international festival and arthouse acclaim.
Hailed at home as the Russian Amelie, Mermaid's heroine is Alissa. the daughter of a portly, bouncy woman (Sokova) and a passing sailor who chanced upon her on a deserted beach, bathing in the nude. The sailor is long gone, and Alissa, aged five at the film's onset, lives with her mother and senile granny. She wants to be a ballerina and dreams of meeting her father but both wishes are denied to her.
Some of her desires do come true, however - such as her village home being destroyed in a hurricane which forces her mother to move to Moscow. Whether this, and some other momentuous events in the course of the film, are actually Alissa's doing remains an open question until the very end.
Once in Moscow, she carries out a succession of odd jobs (including one which involves roaming the streets in a rubber mobile phone) until one night she fishes a young man called Sasha (Tsyganov) out of the river. He turns out to be an upwardly mobile young businessman, successfully selling lots on the moon to people (only the visible side, he stresses) in the daytime, getting drunk in the evening, and conducting an affair with blonde bombshell Rita (Skrinichenko) in between. Alissa falls in love and works some of her (supposed) magic to save him several times, with mixed results.
A lively portrait of the transition from childhood to maturity, Mermaid's bemusing, downbeat ending confused many in the Berlin audience but seems simply to represent the end of this transition - the child disappears, the adolescent is no longer there, adulthood sets in.
Melikyan's own script doesn't quite provide the material for an almost-two-hour move and the length is felt by the audience despite sterling work from both Dontsova and Shalaeva (in particular).
Some crazy but efficient supporting performances are delivered by Maria Sokova and Yevgenyi Tsyganov (an actor, singer and youth idol). Technical credits are solid, and Igor Vdovin's score rounds up the fanciful mood.
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Director of photography