A Modern Fairy Tale (“Rusalka” Roundtable, #3)

“I can make dreams come true,” says Alisa and by doing so makes one of the many claims in this movie which are supposed to make us believe that Anna Melikyan’s Mermaid is a modern fairy tale. The way in which the film is put together: the camera work, the editing and Alisa‘s retrospective voice-over  evoke a fairy-tale-like world in which Alisa’s character is able to interfere. Or so it seems. In this film the forces of nature align to grant wishes, magic love shows instant effects, and the future can be changed for the better at the last minute thanks to prophetic dreams. But serendipity comes at a price, a cost to be borne by someone else.

“I can make dreams come true,” says Alisa and by doing so makes one of the many claims in this movie which are supposed to make us believe that Anna Melikyan’s Mermaid is a modern fairy tale. The way in which the film is put together: the camera work, the editing and Alisa‘s retrospective voice-over  evoke a fairy-tale-like world in which Alisa’s character is able to interfere. Or so it seems. In this film the forces of nature align to grant wishes, magic love shows instant effects, and the future can be changed for the better at the last minute thanks to prophetic dreams. But serendipity comes at a price, a cost to be borne by someone else.

In Rusalka, we see a fairy tale world where the events can be foretold and manipulated, and where the arms of a lovestruck girl form a protective wall around her lover.  Reality is shown as a two-dimensional projection screen for dreams. It is no accident that the aesthetics of the film keep reminding the viewer of television commercials.(Russell Edwards on http://www.variety.com/review/VE1117934944.html?categoryid=31&cs=1.) The advertisements with their promises of eternal happiness permeate the plot and they echo in the prophetic background narration.  Astrid Lindgren’s Karlson announces “We guarantee to make all dreams come true” on the billboard above Alisa’s school. Announcements on t-shirts and advertising signs foreshadow the plot in a formulaic way. Long before Alisa is transformed into the face of a Moscow advertising campaign she is already a mere phantom.

The final sequence of the film plays on the viewer’s desire to believe that the promises of happiness invoked by the narrative will be fulfilled. The film’s conclusion toys with the expectation of a happy ending which has been suggestively conjured up during the movie withoutever indicating that this expectation will be eventually fulfilled. On the contrary, there is nothing in the film that hints at the lovers‘ final bliss: neither the plot pattern which has been borrowed from one of the saddest European fairy tales, Hans Christian Andersen‘s “Little Mermaid,” – nor the tension around the red sports car with its quarreling passengers. Nonetheless, in the final seconds of the film viewers cling to the false hopes that are so typical of fairy tales.  The audience may get some temporary relief from the scene on the crosswalk, right after Alisa survives her encounter with the red sports car as she is running towards her happiness.  However, our high hopes are shattered when, contrary to expectations, she is suddenly struck by another sports car and dies. The film takes advantage of its story modeled on the fairy-tale by hinting at a happy ending that never comes. Ultimately all the wishes granted and the magic powers turn out to be nothing but empty shells, mere slogans and shallow dreams.

The director uses many different techniques to create the impression of hopeful expectation. Point-of-view shots make the viewers evaluate the situation from Alisa’s perspective by placing them in Alisa’s place; the clichéd usage of colors in the dream sequences acts as a critical comment; and the non-diegetic narrator voice promising happiness is discredited from the very beginning. Paradoxically, despite the fact that this voice proclaims early on that it will eventually stop talking, it never does. It even survives the fatal accident at the end of the movie.  Alisa’s narrative stops only when her own perceptions correspond for once with the film’s mimetic narration. At one point, the disillusioned Alisa recognizes for a short while that the place beside Sasha has already been taken. In contrast to the advertising slogans, which seem like a false promise during this sequence and which can be interpreted  as a sneering commentary, Alisa tries to face a reality that  is everything but glamorous.  

However, a change towards more realistic type of motivation is perceptible in the miracles that take place throughout the film, even if their links to the plot are made deliberately unclear through editing. Above all, the plot line itself contradicts the fairy tale narrative and the belief in miracles it inspires. Despite all the promises of happiness, Alisa‘s greatest dreams never come true. Her absent father cannot be forced into her life by inflicting draconian punishment on the “unfaithful” mother, and in spite of the widely exploited fairy tale motif, Sasha never takes his place as the prince. He does not bother to kiss the sleeping beauty back to life. The unreliability that characterizes both the non-diegetic narrator and the personalized point of view also extends to the realistic counter-narrative. The question is whether this is a weakness or a strength.

In Melikyan‘s far less convincing debut Mars, unreliability is unmasked as such by the narrative itself. In Mermaid, however, nothing seems to be reliable, the viewer cannot even trust the intertitles with their specific references to time: months seem to go by between the beginning of the week and the next Wednesday. Or time just stops even though day and night come and go. The only thing that remains real for the viewer is the voice of the undead girl Alisa herself. The “moon girl’s” voice makes up a life story to go with Alisa’s face on the billboard. Alisa invents herself as a modern mermaid. The omnipresent unreliability in Rusalka hints that everything might simply be “fake,” which makes this kind of narrative an ideal model for the creation of a virtual fairy tale. Given all this we should not be surprised when Alisa, who at this point is already dead, winks at the audience at the very end and invites us to buy her story as something wonderful.

Christine Goelz, Ph.D, is a lecturer of cultural studies at the Institute for East European Studies at Berlin’s Free University.

Roundtable participants:

Natascha Drubek-Meyer, A Little Mermaid in the World of Russian Advertising

Matthias Meindl and Svetlana Sirotinina, Theodor Adorno, Fairy Tales, and “Rusalka”

Christine Goelz, A Modern Fairy Tale

Henrike Schmidt, Happy End

Bettina Lange, Glamor Discourse

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