Following a text quotation from Nietzsche (“What is done out of love always takes place beyond good and evil”), The Siren (formerly titled The Rusalka) begins with a voiceover from Al (MacLeod Andrews), reading aloud a letter to his beloved husband Michael. The letter describes the Slovenian legend of the rusalka, a lovesick woman who drowns and reawakens as an aquatic living ghost cursed with an ‘unholy want’ to drown anyone who ever comes near her again. The erotic anguish and loss at the rippling centre of this myth also inform the texture of the film – for if the mermaid-like creature is doomed never to get close to what she loves without destroying it, then Al too can address his lover only from an aching distance. Michael, after all, is dead, having drowned in the lake some time earlier – and when we see him in flashback (played by the film’s writer/director Perry Blackshear), he is mostly glimpsed from behind, an absent presence, effaced and almost obliterated. Al is trying to preserve the memory of what they once had together by hunting the female ‘water demon’ that he believes took Michael away from him.
Against a backdrop of female folk choral singing that conjures traces of Slovenia in this American littoral, a newcomer arrives: Tom (Evan Dumouchel), a Christian stopping for a lakeside vacation before heading off on a religious mission in Europe. Averse to swimming since the childhood accident that left him permanently mute, Tom is a good-natured innocent who seems unlikely to be endangered by the recent spate of local drownings – but as he passes the time whittling wood, he becomes aware of someone’s presence in the water around his rented house. Eventually Nina (Margaret Ying Drake) reveals herself – an ordinary-seeming young woman, but for the fact that she never leaves the water – and slowly a relationship blossoms between them, even as Al circles watchfully, uncertain what to believe anymore.
As with his previous film They Look Like People, Blackshear never allows his genre materials to overwhelm the story’s psychological, metaphorical or indeed human dimensions. In a narrative set in the liminal space between water and land, Nina is a figure of amatory transgression – a Siren who lures a gay man from his husband, and a virgin from the ‘path of the Lord’ – but she also feels like a flesh and blood figure, whose own impulses of love and longing are not only all-too-human, but also not so dissimilar to the emotions of the other humans around her. Make no mistake, The Siren is a love story – and a bizarre love triangle – even if the love that it shows shimmers with a sense of supernatural peril. Like Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger By The Lake, Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s Spring and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread, it concerns people who embrace with open arms what is dangerous, forbidden, impossible – and who willingly dive deep into what might just suffocate them. As these lost souls drink in their Otherness, risking everything as they meet halfway on the shoreline of desire, what they are enacting is the transcendent spirit of romance itself, with all its capacities for passion, self-sacrifice and transformation. The results are tense, and hauntingly melancholic.
The Siren was seen and reviewed at FrightFest Glasgow 2019.