Ondine (2010)

★ ★ ★ ★

Ondine is Neil Jordan's latest attempt at fusing mythology with reality. It is also his most successful attempt. Ondine is the best motion picture of the year thus far, rivaled only by Nicolas Refn's Valhalla Rising*. While the latter created a nightmarish world from which we hope to awaken, awakening from the dreamlike Ondine is bittersweet. Alternately elegiac and hopeful, Ondine is a prose poem; a pastiche of Irish culture. There is nothing more difficult than creating a film that leaves the audience feeling hopeful, without a trace of cynicism. Ondine is one of the rare movies that does just that.

Ondine is set in a fishing village on the coast of Ireland. A local fisherman, Syracuse (Farrell) finds an unconscious woman caught in his fishing net (Bachleda). When revived, she has seemingly lost her memory. She is frightened of being seen by anyone else, so she stays at Syracuse's dead mother's home. Syracuse has lived there alone since his divorce. He is a recovering alcoholic, known to most as Circus for his drunken antics. His gravely ill daughter Annie (Barry) lives with his alcoholic ex-wife, and her boyfriend. On one of their afternoons together, Syracuse tells Annie a fictionalized version of his recent experience. Annie believes the woman to be a selkie, a mythical sea creature that resembles a human female. A series of strange occurences lead Syracuse to believe she may be right. Throughout the film, the audience is left wondering whether hapless Syracuse has stumbled onto a genuine miracle, or whether he's just lucky for a change. As the precariousness of the situation becomes evident, the question becomes all the more important. Having experienced the powerlessness of alcoholism, Syracuse wonders whether he has once again found himself in a situation beyond his grasp.

More so than any movie that comes to mind, Ondine examines the nature of mythology. Myths typically originate from a set of half truths, and are imparted to children at a young age. Purveyors of myths generally hope that these myths will impart wisdom to younger generations, helping them to avoid the errors of their forebears. But what if this isn't the case at all? Perhaps myths merely warn us of eventualities. Worse still, perhaps ingrained myths can become an impediment. Maybe straying from the path occasionally is a good idea. Maybe trusting a stranger every now and then enriches one's life. Believing that you've been granted seven years of happiness is a blessing, and a curse. The complacency caused by this mental allotment can be the cause of its abridgment. Then again, if the myth is true, then there is little to do but enjoy the moment.

Colin Farrell is among the most talented actors in Hollywood today. It is great to see that he is still willing to take on smaller roles. Actors like Farrell lend credibility to smaller productions, and have been instrumental in the current film renaissance we are experiencing. Farrell is equally at home playing the action hero, as he is a downtrodden fisherman. He's occasionally morose, sometimes clownish, but his ascetic demeanor is resilient. Alicja Bachleda makes the perfect foil. She always seems vulnerable, maintaining a near childlike wonder. She cowers from the world like a feral child (no pun intended), fickle, yet often exuberant. Ironically, the edifying force in the movie is Alison Barry. Annie is at once the most impressionable, and wisest of the characters. Always interpreter of the strange events, she seems to be the only character who understands their true significance. Her quick wit is downright shocking for a child of her age.

As we've learned from Seinfeld, the word breathtaking is often used carelessly. In the case of Ondine, it is almost an understatement. The rolling hills of the Irish coast provide a majestic backdrop, singularly appropriate for the film. Transitions between scenes are flowing, almost non-existent. Pastoral Celtic music melds one scene to the next, creating a dreamlike quality rarely seen in film.

Unfortunately, as is often the case with arthouse films, Ondine failed to secure a wide release. Unless you have the good fortune of stumbling upon it at an independent theater, I highly recommend picking up the DVD. It is the best 2010 movie I've seen thus far, and I'd be surprised if it didn't end the year that way.

*Written before viewing Never Let Me Go