The following post is the first of a five-part miniseries on food and contemporary Canadian film, prepared by students from Olivia Heaney’s ENGL 393 Canadian Cinema course at McGill University. Bon Film.
I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing
by Jackie Halloran Cooper
This film follows Polly Vandersma (Sheila McCarthy), a 31-year-old amateur photographer and ‘temp-girl’ whom Gabrielle St. Peres (Paule Baillargeon) hires as an art gallery secretary during their meeting in a Japanese restaurant. Polly’s unsuccessful navigation of what is, for her, an unfamiliar cultural setting, illustrates how an individual’s status can be judged by the sophistication of their cultural taste. Immediately following the restaurant scene, Polly returns to her bachelorette apartment, where the relationship between taste and sophistication is destabilized in her interactions with food, music and objects in her home.
The a priori assumption that certain forms of cultural participation and taste are simply better than others is disrupted once we leave the unfamiliar space of the restaurant and return to the private space of Polly’s home. Here, Polly behaves like a child, just as she did at the restaurant; in her pajamas she attempts to assemble a dinner, which consists of canned peas, saltine crackers, and a pickle. The unrefined nature of this meal at first appears to represent the extent of Polly’s cultural capital; however, this appearance of ‘poor taste’ is disrupted by her decision to put on Léo Delibes’ operatic musical score “Lakmé: The Flower Duet.” By juxtaposing her physical consumption of cheap, unflavourful saltine crackers with her cultural consumption of the high-calibre creation of Delibes, Rozema nuances any prior judgment placed on Polly’s tastes as inferior. Instead, her tastes simply contrast one another like her assortment of snacks, which all have distinct “flavours, scents, textures, shapes, and sizes,” and do not conform to what is considered a “normal” dinner (Mendenhall 93). The contrasting flavours of Polly’s meal and her selection of highbrow music expresses her pleasure in combining and consuming different cultural tastes. Indeed, Polly blurs the boundaries between childlike taste — demonstrated by her consumption of crackers — and more distinguished adult taste, as shown by her selection of music.
The oscillation between being adult and childlike shapes Polly’s perception of the world and the way her identity is shaped within it. For Kathryn Bond Stockton, the concept of “‘growing sideways’ suggests that the width of a person’s experience or ideas, their motives or their motions, may pertain at any age, bringing ‘adults’ and ‘children’ into lateral contact of surprising sorts” (11). Polly might adequately be described as ‘growing sideways’ because of the fluidity between the pleasure she takes in mature art forms and her childish behaviour and dietary choices. Indeed, many scholars who have written on the film have made remarks concerning Polly’s sexual fluidity, which I would argue is just another example of the way Polly’s consumption practices are framed outside of hierarchical structures. Therefore, Polly’s approach, and the film as a whole, encourages its spectators to rethink the validity of universal standards and judgements based on the value of taste. It is for this reason that Brenda Austin-Smith’s suggestion that Rozema’s strategy of “… [e]scaping the world of artspeak and critical judgment… by burrowing deeper into dreams” is a “rather weak move for a feminist film to make” (228) does not hold true within my discussion of taste. The film reveals the way in which binaries are insufficient to evaluate an individual’s status based on a system of taste that is established by those simply legitimizing their own cultural preferences. As Pierre Bourdieu famously put it, “taste classifies, and it classifies the classifier” (6) as one who undermines those who take pleasure in the ‘lower’ forms consumption. Instead, Mermaids disrupts hierarchical structures by allowing Polly’s fantasy world to have the same legitimacy as the ‘real’ world, instead of relinquishing it in favour of “collective normality” (Alemany-Galway 144). Polly’s fluidity is a positive trait that gives way to her imaginative capabilities and what late feminist filmmaker Chantal Akerman would describe as a jouissance du voir—an ecstasy of seeing (Mendenhall 85-6).
Alemany-Galway, Mary. “I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing.” A Postmodern Cinema: The Voice of the Other in Canadian Film. London: Scarecrow, 2002. 141-64. Print.
Austin-Smith, Brenda. “‘Gender is irrelevant’: I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing as Women’s
Cinema.” Canada’s Best Features: Critical Essays on 15 Canadian Films. Ed. Eugene P. Walz. Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi, 2002. 209-36. Print.
Bourdieu, Pierre. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1984. 1-17. Print.
I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing. Dir. Patricia Rozema. Perf. Sheila McCarthy and Paule Baillargeon. Miramax Films, 1987. DVD.
Mendenhall, Julia. I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing: A Queer Film Classic. Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp, 2014. Print.
Stockton, Kathryn Bond. “Growing Sideways, or Why Children Appear to Get Queerer in the Twentieth Century.” Introduction. The Queer Child Or Growing Sideways in the Twentieth Century. Durham: Duke UP, 2009. 1-58. Print.
Photos by Alexia Moyer