With Hollywood’s rash of fairytale movies, nostalgia for older interpretations can rise up. Disney’s The Little Mermaid is a well beloved classic among Americans, a sugarcoated version that removes the bittersweet tragedy in Hans Christian Andersen’s writing. Rusalochka was a 1976 film that followed the spirit of the original story more closely. Russian fairytales have an especial magic; It is all the more more enchanting set in a barren landscape. The little mermaid is a little Rusalka, a mermaid-like water nymph or ghost in Slavic mythology. They were the spirits of a unbaptized children or drowned young women. The rusalki would lure men to their deaths with music and sights of their beauty.
Rusalki of the Baltic Sea swim among jellyfish and dance together beneath the waves while a merry ship bursting with songs and sparklers sail on overhead. A green-haired rusalka with a childlike voice played by Viktoriya Novikova spies a handsome young man on the vessel before she and her sisters lead the sailors to their doom. Everything goes to the Tsar of the Sea but Prince Antoine, for he is rescued by the rusalochka. She brings him to dry land where he is taken away by a local princess. Lovelorn, the rusalka waits for her beloved in the moat of a castle. Sulpitus, a vagabond, meets the girl and out of compassion procures a witch. Green hair is traded for a two legs and a heart; the quest for Prince Antoine’s love begins.
The most noticeable deviation from the accepted story is that the Rusalochka gets to keep her voice. This works as a reminder that she is not a worldly human being. Her amoral purity and unapologetic honesty triggers the hatred and justified fear the people have towards Rusalki, thus getting her into trouble. I quite like the princess to whom the prince is betrothed, she’s politically savvy and frank about her self-serving deceptions. The witch’s grumpy sass is the best, and Sulpitus’s caring nature makes for numerous heartwarming scenes. Poor Prince Antoine is a wistful pretty boy caught in the schemes of others. His only agency is tied to chivalric duty, otherwise the poor fellow just seems deeply confused. Rusalochka in rustic and royal settings, the prominent Russian folk culture, and theatricality makes this film feel like a storybook brought to life. There are a several hilarious leaps of logic, but fairytales aren’t sticklers for rationality. Overall this film is charmingly done with a vintage 70s quality that enhances the Soviet aesthetic. It feels real, like childhood, and I think it deserves a place in our culture