From the Videotheque Vault: Rusalochka (The Little Mermaid) (1976)

Though dedicated to the memory of Hans Christian Anderson, this version of The Little Mermaid is about as far from the original as the Disney version, but in the opposite direction on the happiness scale. The filmmakers succeed in making the already sad story even more tragic while attempting to keep it entertaining for children. The result is a bizarre mixture of kitsch and heartbreak.

The film would have been vastly better if it did not attempt to appeal to children by the use of heavy-handed comic relief which is so jarring in contrast to the delicate handling of other scenes. The use of choreographed synchronized swimming and attempts at musical-style song and dance routines also do the film no favors, but if the bad scenes are painful, the good scenes are truly glorious; both visually satisfying and creatively structured. The basic story is the classic one: a mermaid saves a prince, falls in love with him, and is willing to trade anything for the chance to be a human and be with him, while he is busy pursuing a princess, under the impression that she is the one who saved him from drowning. However, almost all other crucial points in the original are altered. There is a mysterious wanderer named Sulpitius, who falls in love with the mermaid, guides her, and does everything he can to help her. The witch who turns her into a human is strangely compassionate, and does not take away her voice. The film’s main focus, though, is not on the attainment of true love or an immortal soul (as in the original fairy tale) but on the nature of human life and the boundary between fiction and reality.

The most powerful scenes focus on the mermaid’s innocence and her encounter with human morality and affection. The difference between the world under the sea and the world on dry land is established from the beginning, when objects from a shipwreck sink into the sea and lose their meaning. One of the mermen attempts to play a sunken violin, but of course produces no sound underwater. This indicates that the nameless mermaid will have to engage with a whole new set of values and morals when in our world. This is beautifully emphasized in a scene in which she first sees herself in a mirror and touches it to find out if what she is seeing is real. Dwelling in the water, it would be logical to assume that she would be familiar with reflections, but in showing her surprise at seeing herself in the mirror, the director subtly indicates that she is a stranger to herself now that she is human, completely lost in our world, and uncertain of its workings. As a mermaid, she had no heart, and her affection for the prince is at first blind and purposeless. When she meets Sulpitius, she simply tells him that she “will die” if she does not see the prince.

Sulpitius makes a deal with a witch to turn her into a human and give her a heart. She is transformed into a woman, but loses none of her charm; she remains so absolutely innocent and guileless that it is almost excruciating to watch. She cannot even understand the concept of telling a lie. Her beauty and her transparent displays of emotion are unbelievably touching. She sees nothing wrong with her previous occupation of drowning ships, but now that she has a heart, cannot bear to witness violence. The mermaid’s incredible presence probably owes much less to Viktoriya Novikova’s performance than to the camerawork and direction. She is usually shot from a subtle high angle, in soft, ethereal lighting that, in close-ups, emphasizes her glowing skin, huge eyes, and pale golden hair, giving her an otherworldly and mysterious look that is entirely nonthreatening and deeply appealing. In long shots, she is usually the one bright spot in a crowd, shining amid the darkness of the people around her. Despite retaining her voice, she rarely speaks, usually looking at those speaking to her with fascination. Her unearthly beauty and her strange combination of foreign morality and very human candor make her irresistible to the viewer both visually and emotionally.

Typical close-up of the mermaid, shot slightly from above with soft lighting, calling attention to her beautiful features and mysterious smile.

Apparently, her tremendous emotional appeal influences everyone around her. The mere presence of the transformed mermaid causes characters to be sincere, open, and do the right thing. The princess confesses to the mermaid that she is a spoiled, dissatisfied brat, and later confesses to the prince that she lied about loving only him. The witch who transformed the mermaid has a sudden hunger for love. The prince feels compelled to marry the princess because he believes that she saved him. When the prince goes to fight in a tournament for the princess, he feels he can only speak to the mermaid. Sulpitius exchanges his life for the continuing existence of the mermaid’s soul. The film also places repeated emphasis on instinctive, emotional action. The prince feels instinctively drawn to the woman who saved him, who he mistakenly thinks is the princess. The mermaid jumps in front of the prince when a knight attacks him with a sword. Moments such as these are, like the mermaid, touchingly simple, making her the representation of all that is uncomplicated, straightforward, and selfless in human nature. Thus, while she willingly embraces the pain of human existence, those around her learn its beauty from her.

Still as a mermaid, longing for the prince, framed by the arch of the bridge.

The witch, when transforming the mermaid into a woman, warns her that every step for her will be like walking on sharp knives, but the pain she will feel in her heart will be even greater if the prince should marry another. Her suffering underscores one of the most endearing aspects of the film: the mermaid’s simple joy of being human. She captivates everyone by her dancing and keeps smiling, although the repeated close-ups of her feet remind us that she is enduring torture with every second. At the prince’s wedding, when she is to die the next day, the mermaid at first cries, but, seeing the prince’s happiness, joins with the celebrations, dancing and laughing. The witch demands to know what she is so happy about and asks if she has any regrets about what happened. In response, she merely smiles mysteriously and shakes her head. Her face constantly indicates a vague and enigmatic happiness, a profound joy in living. When she chooses to die and in order to see the prince happy, she is choosing with her human heart, not with the uncompromising attraction that she felt for the prince initially. This is the major difference between this adaptation and the original story. In the fairy tale, the mermaid chooses to sacrifice herself for the prince’s happiness and kills herself in sorrow. In this film, she sacrifices herself and experiences joy at his happiness. The fact that it is the joy of being human and feeling that brings the happiness to the mermaid is evident in a scene in which she dances with the prince. She drifts away from him to dance on her own and he blurs into the crowd as she is caught up in the act.

The mise-en-scene simultaneously separates the mermaid from the ordinary world and integrates her into it. She is repeatedly shown framed by archways, doorways, and mirrors, making her stand out and making her the focus. On the other hand, she is often shown as part of a crowd. At times she emerges as the one bright spot in a group; sometimes she is almost lost among others. The camera often follows her, blurring everyone around her and making them meaningless, but it also often surveys her dispassionately along with everyone else. The way she is presented makes her a liminal creature; not of this world, but seeing it with a new gaze that brings joy to those around her. Her innocence, happiness, and utter lack of guile bring out the same qualities in others, allowing them to find joy. In the end, Sulpitius gives up his life for the mermaid, so that she remains on earth as a spirit, “eternal as a dream.” Her spirit brings happiness to all who encounter her. This brings up other recurring themes in the film: the boundary between reality and fiction and the immortality of ideas.

The mermaid’s reflection framed in a mirror, singling her out and making her the focus, as the awestruck court watches her dance.
The mermaid dancing as part of the crowd (she is the one in bluish dress to the left).

The film uses an elaborate framing device; it starts in the nineteenth century with Hans Christian Anderson (played by the same actor who played Sulpitius) driving in a stagecoach with a young girl (the mermaid), her guardian (the witch), and a young couple (the prince and princess). The girl keeps looking in fascination and sadness at the young couple, prompting Anderson to tell her the story of the little mermaid. The idea that the story plays out anew subtly breaks the fourth wall, suggesting the idea that the mermaid’s presence and unique perspective will affect not only the characters she interacts with, but the audience as well. Through watching the film, we become among those “lucky enough to have met her.” Perhaps the aim of the film is to embody the mermaid’s spirit and make its viewers see the world anew and notice its beauty, as well as the beauty of human emotions and affections.

The mermaid’s dance: the prince (on the right) is blurred, a part of the crowd.

Despite my calling attention to the more beautiful and stirring scenes, the movie is far from perfect. The attempts to appeal to children are vaguely pathetic (the songs, the crude comic relief of the drunken crowds, the ridiculous magic rituals.) The portrayal of the commoners in the film is derogatory and excessive; they blindly follow whatever anyone tells them and seek amusement from the death or pain of others. At the jousting match between the prince and his rival, the mermaid suddenly realizes that it is not a game and that they truly mean to kill each other. She calls for them to stop in horror, but the crowd only laughs at her. Perhaps this behavior is meant to highlight the delicacy and innocence of the mermaid, but it comes across as insensitive and vulgar. Her personality would be obvious without the contrast, and the portrayal of the dirty, callous, and coarse “populace” is an unpleasant note in the film. Synchronized dancers are used as the mermaids, but the film would have worked just as well if we had not been able to see their tails. The appearance of the mermaids is not only unnecessary, but somehow insulting to the viewer’s imagination. The musical numbers are ineffective and forced. The subtitles are another problem; while accurate, they fail to convey the atmosphere and the tone of the characters, frequently making them seem stupid or uncaring. For example, when Sulpitius is talking to the witch, the subtitles read: “It’s not for you to feel joy seeing joy in someone else’s eyes,” but what he is actually saying is closer to “you have never felt the happiness of seeing joy in another’s eyes.” Not only is the subtitle awkward, it also indicates a judgment which is not implied by his actual words. He is not saying that the witch is incapable of feeling empathy, but rather pitying her because she has not experienced it. In general, the movie has its faults, but the enormous visual and emotional appeal of the good scenes overshadows (or rather outshines) them.

-Anna Shane
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