I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing (1987): Canadian Rozema’s Lyrical Lesbian Tale

Patricia Rozema, one of Canada’s most notable female filmmaker, made a strong impression with her lesbian romantic feature, I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing.

The amiable protagonist is Polly (Sheila McCarthy), who also serves as the narrator for the film, which contains sequences of her whimsical fantasies.

Alone and lonely, Polly enjoys solitary bicycle rides for her hobby of photography. Despite clumsiness, lack of education, and social awkwardness, Polly is hired as secretary in private art gallery owned by Gabrielle (Paule Baillargeon).

Mary (Ann-Marie MacDonald), Gabrielle’s former lover-painter, returns after an absence, and she and Gabrielle rekindle their former bond despite Gabrielle’s misgivings that she is too old and Mary too young.

Polly, who’s fallen in love with Gabrielle, is inspired to submit her own photographs anonymously to the gallery. She is crushed when Gabrielle dismisses her photos out of hand as “simpleminded.”

Depressed, Polly quits the gallery, but later returns; she’s encouraged when Mary notices one of her photos.  Meanwhile, Mary and Gabrielle have been perpetrating a fraud. Gabrielle has been passing off Mary’s work as her own. When Polly finds out, she becomes livid and tosses a cup of tea at Gabrielle. She then retreats to her flat in anguish.

Mary and Gabrielle realize that the discarded photographs were by Polly. As the film ends, Gabrielle and Mary look at more of Polly’s photos.  In a short fantasy sequence the three are transported together to an idyllic wooded glen, a metaphor for the beautiful world that plain and unnoticed people like Polly inhabit.

The movie’s title derives from “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” by T. S. Eliot.

Distributor: Miramax

Release date: September 11, 1987

Running time: 81 minutes