Of all the mythical creatures spread across the world throughout history, the legend of the mermaid is probably one of the most ubiquitous. The mercurial half-fish, half-woman whose intoxicating beauty and hypnotic voice lures sailors to their death – just another example of mythology teaching us that women can’t be trusted, right? A Mermaid in Paris, directed by Mathias Malzieu in his live-action debut (his previous work includes the stunningly rendered animated film Jack and the Cuckoo-Clock Heart), doesn’t reinvent the wheel in its narrative, but invokes a familiar fairy tale with such style and imagination that it creates a magical, utterly captivating romance.
Gaspard (Nicolas Duvauchelle) is a singer at a quirky Parisian nightclub that’s been in his family for generations, a real bohemian hotspot for the ages. He’s had his heart broken in the past, something that’s given him a sort of emotional numbness. But in the end, he’s lucky not to have a fully-functioning heart, because one night he meets and rescues a beached mermaid, Lula (Marilyn Lima), who has an unsettling habit of inadvertently killing the men she touches via a fatal heart attack. Their burgeoning relationship is sweet and charming, with Lula learning more about the human world (from the safety of Gaspard’s bathtub, of course) and Gaspard slowly warming up to the possibility of love and moving forward with his life rather than wallowing in the past.
So the story is all kinds of delightful, one that almost makes you feel that you, like Lula, are sinking into a warm, soothing bath of your own. But what really sets A Mermaid in Paris apart is its incredible visual style. It has an aesthetic that reminds one of an early, creatively inspired Tim Burton, with a bright, vibrant color palette that somehow also feels bizarrely foreboding. There’s such a tremendous attention to detail that lends texture to the film, making it feel as multidimensional and alive as the intricately designed pop-up book that features heavily in A Mermaid in Paris.
It’s a bold, assertive foray into live-action filmmaking for Malzieu, a director supremely confident in his abilities as a visual storyteller. Because as warm and dreamy as Gaspard is, and as much as Lima captures the essence of an ethereal, inquisitive, and ultimately dangerous mermaid, the overall aesthetic of A Mermaid in Paris is what defines it as a film. Every single scene draws the viewer in, creating a heightened reality that captures the famously romantic city of Paris at its most magical. From the frenetic, old-school glamour of the nightclub to the gorgeous eccentricity of Gaspard’s ocean-themed bathroom, the design work is clearly a calling card for this director. (He even gets the opportunity to throw in a few animated sequences, echoing the visual style of his previous work and breathing extra life into the film.) Malzieu is also a musician, lead singer of the French band Dionysos, and he puts his skills to good use here. A Mermaid in Paris features a lush and enigmatic score, with charming original songs that have a vintage feel.
If there is a flaw in the film, it has a tendency to spend too much time with the hospital subplot, as a doctor (whose lover is the unfortunate red shirt that proves the extent of Lulu’s powers) insists on tracking the mermaid down. The revenge-driven, detective aspect of the story doesn’t mesh particularly well with the frothy romantic elements, and at several points in the film you can almost feel it bringing the flow of the narrative to a screeching halt. In a mermaid rom-com, it feels as though the inherent complications of a human in love with a sea creature should eliminate the necessity for there to be a traditional antagonist.
A Mermaid in Paris doesn’t ask a lot of its audience. It’s a bubbly, eccentric romance with roots in a traditional fairy tale, and it isn’t particularly interested in setting the world on fire with a new, clever take on the mermaid story. Instead, it chooses to devote all of its energy to taking you down a well-trod path in the most breathtaking and visually dynamic way possible. Malzieu succeeds here by building a Paris that could only exist in the movies, and giving us a charismatic romance that we can fall in love with ourselves.