Sometimes all you need to know about a film is the title. Take Mathias Malzieu’s A Mermaid in Paris, for instance. That title will equip the majority of readers with all the knowledge required to make an informed decision about whether this is a film they wish to seek out. It denotes fantasy, melodrama, and an old-Hollywood sensibility. It promises a high-concept premise about that most low-concept, universal thing: love. A Mermaid in Paris is everything the title promises it will be, but not much more. For those not immediately enticed, this film will likely prove a tedious watch. But if what’s promised sounds enticing, then this film might just prove a treat.
Of the qualities listed, the old-Hollywood feeling is perhaps the most pronounced. Malzieu is not particularly interested in pushing the creative envelope, nor in finding previously untold stories to tell. No, with A Mermaid in Paris he crafts a film concerned wholly with the past. The story is a hybrid of an Esther Williams aquatic drama and old-school romances like It Happened One Night, stitching the beats and ideas of various classic films together, much in the same way Stranger Things does 80s iconography. And like the Duffer Brothers, there appears to be little creative impetus to Malzieu’s retrograde beyond evoking the classics for the sake of evoking classics. Not an ignoble goal by any means, but the lack of further purpose makes the existence of A Mermaid in Paris difficult to justify. Nothing is particularly advocating against it, but it would be difficult to make a solid case in its defense.
The most backward-looking part of the film is its protagonist, Gaspard (Nicholas Duvauchelle). Left heartbroken by a past romance, he spends his days co-running the Flowerburger, a florally themed music bar established by his late mother. But alas, the Flowerburger has fallen on hard times. The mid-20th century decor and The Chordettes adjacent house-band are failing to draw much of a crowd (or so we’re told, the bar always appears to be pretty full). Unwilling to let the bar go and move on, he works hard to keep it open, but if things don’t turn around soon the Flowerburger will be forced to close up shop.
Don’t grow too attached to this plot, as Malzieu abandon’s it the moment the titular mermaid (Marilyn Lima) appears on-screen. Washed ashore when Paris is struck by a bought of heavy rain, Gaspard finds her and, thinking she is a woman in costume, takes her to the hospital. There the mermaid accidentally kills a doctor (Alexis Michalik). It turns out that if a man hears her sing his heart explodes. Gaspard decides to protect her and hides her away in his apartment. There we find out he is immune to her song because his heart has already exploded from, wait for it, heartbreak. This is as clear as romantic setups come, and unsurprisingly, as they hide out in his apartment, he begins falling in love.
The romance itself is generic and underdeveloped. Malzieu’s script is on autopilot; it never properly establishes why Gaspard and the mermaid fall in love. They just sort of do. Duvauchelle and Lima have a perfectly acceptable amount of chemistry and do the best with their underwritten characters, but the film is content to skate by on familiar romantic beats, and they are never really allowed the opportunity to make exciting acting decision. They are, however, better served than the remainder of the cast who all play archetypes—Rossy de Palma is the nosy neighbor, Techéky Karyo the tired father, Romane Bohringer the widowed detective. The only reason their characters exist is that they existed in the films Malzieu is referencing. He’s disinterested in who they are, and never bothers to assign them real purpose within the narrative, making them feel like obligations, robbing them of any verve they might have had.
Malzieu enjoys far more success capturing the style of the films he’s imitating. The Flowburger in particular is a showcase of lighting and set design; we’re told that the driving philosophy behind the Flowerburger was to create a feeling of “wonder and panache”, and in that department, the film is a success. It’s a pity that vitality wasn’t bought to every aspect of the film. There’s enough here for fans of the era being imitated, but even then, this feels like leftovers. “Why not?” is hardly an effusive recommendation, but for a film this caught up in pastiche, it’s about all one can muster.