Reel Dad: ‘Undine’ gets trapped in the mysteries of mermaids

Of the mysteries that fill movie screens, mermaids almost always fascinate.

From Darryl Hannah’s magnetic presence in Ron Howard’s “Splash” to the songs and dances of Disney’s “The Little Mermaid,” these residents of land and sea inspire moviemakers to imagine complications that life in one world can usually avoid. But putting two conflicting worlds on film only works if the movies don’t rely on our fascination with such mysterious characters. The pieces entertain if the mermaids enhance the energy the story already generates.

The opening moments of “Undine” look and sound like many movies as a young woman gets mad when her boyfriend breaks up with her. We’ve seen this scene before. As the couple chats, near a museum where she works, he tries to explain and she decides to threaten him and they both say a lot of things they may likely regret. We’ve heard this dialogue before, too. Only later do we realize that, when this woman says, “you must die” to her ex-boyfriend, she really means it. That’s because, as a mermaid, she lives a double life, one on land and one on water. And it’s her destiny, if a boyfriend says goodbye, to initiate a complicated revenge.

Such a complex story, especially one filled with sequences that may or may not actually occur, demands a visual clarity to balance the ambiguity in the narrative. But moviemaker Christian Petzold, who directed the striking drama “Barbara” in 2012, doesn’t seem to know how to balance the elements of reality and fantasy in the script. Rather than make us believe in this woman - regardless of where she happens to call home at any given moment - and the seriousness of the threat she may pose to those she once loved - Petzold lets the character disappear for long stretches without explanation. These gaps in the storytelling, and the mermaid’s character development, dilute the suspense because we just don’t know which threats to seriously consider. Rather than deliberately distinguish life on land versus life under water - as the similarly-titled “Ondine” accomplished - or carefully transition from one world to the other - as director Guillermo del Toro achieved in the Oscar-winning “The Shape of Water” - moviemaker Petzold lets the complication of location get in the way of the complexities of love.

The performances help. Paula Beer, who shined in Petzold’s “Transit” in 2018, works hard to bring clarity to the unfocused character and confusing script. But she doesn’t have enough continuous time on screen to fill the gaps in the script. Likewise, Franz Rogowski and Jacob Matschenz - playing the men in her life - attempt to make us care for characters the script fails to fully develop. But strong actors can’t fix everything. This time around, Petzold lets his fascination with the story he tells get in the way of the clarity that story requires for the rest of us to follow what he has in mind.

Film Summary: Undine

Content: Medium. This look at the ups and downs of a doomed love affair gets caught up in the mysteries of mermaids.

Entertainment: Medium. Despite a strong cast, the gaps in the narrative make this a difficult story to follow and a challenging movie to embrace.

Message: Medium. While the film is visually interesting, there is little to absorb from the film's complicated plot.

Relevance: Medium. Any opportunity to watch Paula Beer work on screen can be welcome, but this is a tough film to take.

Opportunity for Dialogue: Medium. There may not be much to talk about except the other movies you've seen about mermaids.

Ultimately, “Undine” simply doesn’t work, on land or sea.

“Undine” is a German film, with subtitles, not yet rated, but not appropriate for younger children. The film runs 1 hour, 30 minutes, and opens June 4 in theaters before its streaming release.