Gaspard (Nicolas Duvauchelle) has lived his entire life in pursuit of fulfilling a promise from his grandmother that he’s never quite understood. She was the matriarch of a family that reached well past blood to encompass a group of artistic “Surprisers” who gathered at her famed Flowerburger—an underground speakeasy of sorts doubling as a safe haven for anti-fascist disruptors during the war where song and dance led to poems and love. With a wealth of important Parisian history many will never know, she made certain to document everything that occurred via an impossible pop-up book bestowed upon her grandson before her death. He took it willingly and excitedly because he wanted to grow up and continue her legacy. Life just hasn’t yet allowed Gaspard to do so.
And he’s lovesick as a result. He’ll say it’s a result of multiple singer girlfriends that haven’t panned out (to which his nosy/protective neighbor Rossy de Palma would agree when not listening through the wall with a conch shell). He’ll say he lost the capacity to love because his mother died shortly after his grandmother and his father (Tchéky Karyo’s Camille) is now talking about selling the Flowerburger’s docked barge while a profit remains possible. We know there’s more to it, though. We know Gaspard is actually lovesick for an era he’s two generations too young to have experienced—a time when the art of poetic music was enough to call people from all walks of life. Singing to the same three customers every night isn’t his dream.
Gaspard is therefore the perfect figure for director Mathias Malzieu and co-writer Stéphane Landowski to put smack dab in the middle of their fantastical lark. Like the title states, there’s A Mermaid in Paris and she’s (Marilyn Lima’s Lula) luring unsuspecting men into the water with her song. She’s not doing so to eat them, though. This isn’t a horror film a la Agnieszka Smoczynska’s The Lure. Lula’s victims are simply unable to avoid falling in love with her once they hear her voice—a love so deep that their hearts literally explode. It’s a defense mechanism and thus her only means of protection from the cruelty of mankind. Even with it, however, she’s injured to the point of unconsciousness when Gaspard finds her.
Here then is our odd couple pairing: a mermaid who kills any man that loves her and a jaded dreamer who can no longer love. The only way you won’t know what’s coming is if you’ve never seen a romance before since Landowski and Malzieu use the latter’s obvious artistic kinship to Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s visual sensibilities (with a dash of effervescence to make up for a lack of the Amélie auteur’s darker underbelly) to lean into their love story tropes and create a French adventure under the moonlight that proves as familiar as it is idiosyncratic. Lula isn’t quite a manic pixie dream girl while Gaspard isn’t quite not a manic pixie dream guy. They meet at a similar moment of uncertainty and mistrust to save one another.
Much like its protagonist, A Mermaid in Paris can therefore feel a bit out of time too as it harkens back to the early aughts in scope and aesthetic. Gaspard’s apartment is a treasure trove of handcrafted toys from past “Surprisers” that render him in a state of arrested development dominated by nostalgia. You’ll know whether you can go along with Malzieu’s style the instant we enter this domicile to find his lead in an empty tub surrounded by rubber duckies with the aforementioned pop-up book on his lap and a skewer in his hand for a near-by fondue fountain. He’s the consummate “nice guy” wishing for more when Lula enters his life. To secretively save her would make him feel worthy of his grandmother’s clandestinely heroic heritage.
Enter our antagonist. While she’s a doctor rather than a cop, Milena (Romane Bohringer) is pure noir detective with an axe to grind (let’s just say her husband still had the capacity to love when he heard Lula’s siren hum). We ultimately care so little about her that it’s tough to not get annoyed whenever we leave our not-so-lovebird-lovebirds to watch as she discovers her next clue. And because Milena is a product of circumstance rather than animosity, we can’t even hate or fear her like Michael Shannon’s Richard Strickland from The Shape of Water. We instead put up with the fact that she’ll eventually confront Gaspard and Lula and either act maliciously or not. She doesn’t influence their actions as much as speed them up.
The whole can feel disjointed as a result—a frustrating truth considering an external antagonist is completely unnecessary anyway. The beauty of the love story born from Gaspard and Lula is that they’re simultaneously each other’s saviors and destroyers. An inability to love brings them together, but what happens when that proximity reignites love’s potential? Lula being able to trust Gaspard will take down her defenses and that openness will remind his heart of the stinging joy he’s never been able to hold onto. As soon as they begin falling for one another, their biological battle can no longer be prevented. His love will keep him from taking her to the ocean and her fear of dying will inevitably force her to let that same love kill him.
That’s what’s interesting. That duality is what makes their characters more than crutches with which to wake-up from the monotony of destinies that they forget they can alter to fit their own personal desires. Milena will provide them their “Come to God” moment, but the hoops the narrative must jump through to get her there only make an already contrived story (in a comforting, guilty pleasure way) seem more contrived (in a distracting, avoidable way). Thankfully, basking in the warmth and pleasure of Gaspard and Lula singing and adventuring is enough to make the filmmakers’ strings disappear and their eccentric production design shine. The couple’s happiness makes us happy and the lesson learned about writing the sequel to their ancestors’ stories with their voice is endearingly worthwhile.
A Mermaid in Paris is playing as part of Fantasia International Film Festival’s 2020 online edition.