Friday, June 3, 2011

The Little Mermaid (1976)

Malá morská víla watches her prince from the rocks
Beloved throughout Europe and the former Soviet Union, but little seen in the English-speaking world, Karel Kachyna's 1976 adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid is a work of beauty and enchantment that can stand alongside Jean Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast as one of the all time great cinematic fairy tale adaptations.  Like Cocteau's film, Kachyna's stunning imagery evokes the magic and terror that makes their respective fairy tales such primal, resilient narratives.

A handsome prince tries to weather the sea's wrath
The story should be familiar to us all, either from Andersen's original tale, or the modern Disney adaptation.  A young mermaid (the unbelievably lovely Miroslava Safránková), daughter of the King of the Seas (Radovan Lukavský), comes of age with dreams of the surface world.  For her birthday, her father gives her a shipwreck that she may pluck from its wreckage treasures and novelties.  But the only thing that interests her on the ship is its handsome captain, a young prince whom only she can save from drowning.

A statue of the long-departed Queen of the Seas, cloaked in spider-webs
Having held the prince in her arms, the mermaid's longing cannot be contained.  She must join him on the surface.  A sea witch can make all her dreams come true -- but at a terrible price.  She'll lose her voice, each step will feel like blades slicing her feet, and she'll never be able to return to the sea without killing her prince.  Worse, should he marry anyone else, when the sun rises on the morning after the wedding, the little mermaid will be reduced to sea foam.

Cast upon the shore in human form
I have chosen to dramatically increase the number of screenshots we usually use here at Spellbound for this review, for the simple reason that this is a movie of images.  Nothing I can say, no way that I can describe it, will do half the job of conveying to you how beautiful this film is that simply seeing what it looks like does.  But for the scene in which the sea witch explains the terms of her bargain, this could as well have been a silent film, as the narrative is most powerfully conveyed in actions, in faces, in colors, in the storm-swept seas.

Storms mourn for the sea's loss
But of course, this is not a silent film.  As in the Disney version, the Sea King's daughter is renowned as the greatest singer under the waves.   Her voice is lilting and lovely; when the prince hears it resonating through the water, sounding as much like the song of an exotic sea creature as that of a girl; it's little wonder he's willing to risk his ship and his life to find the singer.  Music is used throughout as another way of differentiating the two realms.  On the ocean's floor the music is ethereal, suggesting something familiar yet foreign or something long-forgotten on the tip of your tongue.  We see musicians play conch shells for arriving royalty at the mermaid's birthday.  On the surface, the music is all brass -- it sounds both more alive and more aggressive.  Even the dance music played as the prince courts potential wives has a tempo that cuts through the grace of the dancers, suggesting a mortality that can never be forgotten.

Malá morská víla and her sister explore a shipwreck

Kachyna does well to not try to create a literal interpretation of the undersea kingdom.  Except for the scene near the surface where the prince is saved from drowning, we are never shown the merfolk swimming or immersed in water.  Rather their kingdom is evoked through a blue-green palate, through a set constructed of rocks and mirrors, and through camera tricks that sometimes give the effect of people and objects moving weightlessly across the screen.  Like the castle of the Beast in Cocteau's aforementioned film, the accoutrements of the kingdom provide a spooky life to the world, which is far more moving and fantastic than any "state-of-the-art" special effects could be.  The king keeps a garden of human follies, swords and spears which sway in the ground like blades of grass.  A statue of his wife is so swathed in spiderwebs that it seems to emerge of and from the fibers, like foam on the surface of the water.  The collected noble merfolk feast sensuously on elaborately carved stones of colored ice. 

The King of the Seas loses a daughter...
I don't know of any English-friendly DVD release of this movie.  Nevertheless, if you have an opportunity to see this film (with or without subtitles) I urge you not to pass it up.   Like all great filmic fantasies The Little Mermaid seems to have come to us from another world.  The story may be familiar, but never before has it been made into a film of such sumptuous, iconic imagery and such a tender human heart.

On the surface the little mermaid will have "only her beauty and her eyes..."

1 comment:

  1. Great review, much thanks, i have similar impressions about the film. I don't consider it an masterpiece, but is probably the best version of this fairy tale. It's ethereal beatiful, warm and has an painfully end that is unforgettable.