For this special Pride series of Movie Night in Canada, we asked local LGBT people what their recommendations were for overlooked, underrated, or obscure Canadian queer cinema gems. We heard from comedian David C. Jones and man-about-town Fred Lee.
For our latest post, we return to a queer cinema expert who we consulted for our inaugural installment.
Who better to ask for a queer cinema pick than Peggy Thompson, who is a retired UBC Creative Writing professor in screenwriting. She also penned the screenplay for the 1993 drama The Lotus Eaters (set in the Gulf Islands in 1964) and the 1999 lesbian comedy-drama Better Than Chocolate.
For Pride Week, Thompson picked one of my personal favourites: the offbeat 1987 comedy-drama I've Heard the Mermaids Singing, directed by Patricia Rozema (who also shot When Night is Falling and Mansfield Park).
The film stars Sheila McCarthy (who also starred on CBC's Little Mosque on the Prairie and Orphan Black) as the bumbling and naive but lovable Polly, an Anglo Canadian who falls for a French Canadian woman.
One of the reason I liked it so much was that at the time, while many Canadian films seemed to either aspire to be European art-house drama or imitated slick, commercial Hollywood fare, this film embraced its own quirkiness. Mermaids seemed to have a feel that was uniquely and distinctly Canadian.
Thompson pointed out that the film served as a turning point for both Canadian and queer cinema. In particular, it has historic significance in representations of LGBT characters on screen.
Here's what Thompson had to say about it:
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Shy, awkward, “organizationally impaired” Polly Vandersma gets her first job (at 31) as an assistant in an art gallery. There she develops a crush on the lesbian gallery owner (Paule Baillargeon) and unwittingly sets in motion an art fraud. This charming black and white film launched the careers of a powerhouse of talent: director Patricia Rozema, producer Alex Raffe, and actor Sheila McCarthy.
Mermaids premiered at the Cannes Film Festival where it received a six-minute standing ovation. And after Mermaids everyone had to rethink what they thought they knew about Canadian film and about lesbian film.
What I love about Mermaids is its humour. The film was made in an era when many queer films ended in death. Polly isn’t a character with sexual agency, but she is in love with the curator and is drawn into the queer art world with the curator and her girlfriend (played by Anne-Marie McDonald). And nobody dies.
Polly carries on despite all the mistakes she makes and we root for her. One line that makes me laugh every time is when speaking about the curator who is from Montreal, she says with wide-eyed wonder: “She had a French accent on every word she said.” Ever the eternal child, Polly can also fly in her mind’s eye, an effect done for the film by having Sheila McCarthy lie on an ironing board.
Mermaids was made for a shoestring in 1987 and to date has grossed around 10 million dollars. So we have a small, plucky, creative film that became a big success. A fairy tale about Polly, the innocent who follows her heart in a world of incomprehensible art jargon and wins.
As a sidenote, Alex Raffe was executive producer on my film The Lotus Eaters, which starred Sheila McCarthy. And Anne-Marie MacDonald was in Better than Chocolate.
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Here's the trailer with a few glimpses of what the film is like:
The film was nominated for nine Genie Awards, winning two best acting awards, one for McCarthy and the other for Baillargeon.
If you want to spend a night in at home but still want to celebrate Pride, this is one film to check out.
That's all of this special Pride edition of Movie Night in Canada but we've got more on the way so stay tuned.