Mermaid, aka Rusalka (Русалка) is a 1996 animated short film (ten minutes) from Russia, by Aleksandr Petrov.
The short appears to be set in 19th century Russia, centering on two Orthodox monks—a white-haired old monk and his young apprentice—living in an isolated cabin. One day the young monk goes to the ice-choked river for water and sees a young woman caught in the current, apparently drowning. He manages to grab her and fish her out, but after he races to the cabin for a sled and blankets and returns, she is gone, the footprints in the snow leading back to the river.
However, that isn't the last that the apprentice sees of the woman. He later sees her frolicking in the water like she was born to it, swimming like a dolphin, casually flipping him fish. The apprentice becomes enthralled with her beauty and her angelic singing voice, and keeps returning to the river to find her.
The old monk hears the woman's laughter as she frolics with the apprentice by the river and realizes just who, or rather what, she is: a "rusalka", the Russian equivalent of a mermaid. Unlike Western mermaids, the rusalka has a fully human body. Also unlike Western mermaids, who are usually friendly and sweet like Ariel, the rusalka are actually sirens, who lure young men to their death by drowning. The old monk is doubly horrified because, while he realizes what the woman is, he also knows who she used to be, and why she is in the river.
Done with the distinctive paint-on-glass style that Alexsandr Petrov uses for all his shorts.
- Age Cut: How we get into the flashback. The old monk is startled to hear some very familiar laughter. The film then cuts seamlessly to the old monk as a mustachioed young man, sledding down a hill with the young woman who later became the rusalka.
- The Atoner: Hinted at with the old monk. The cartoon shows that in his youth he was handsome and dashing, The Casanova who bedded one young woman and married another. In the time frame of the story he's lost the wife at some point and has become a bearded monk who prays constantly. The obvious conclusion is that he entered monastic life out of guilt/shame for what happened to the girl who became the rusalka.
- Dope Slap: The rusalka fashions a garland of flowers which she puts on the apprentice's head. The old monk, after pulling the apprentice away from the river, slaps the flowers off his head in a manner that comes off as this.
- Dream Sequence: One with obvious symbolism in which the old monk dreams of climbing to heaven in a ladder, seeing the Virgin Mary (who is his old lover), accepting a lamb from Mary, and then seeing blood on his hands.
- Empathic Environment:
- A storm suddenly breaks out in the flashback, as the young woman flees from the church after seeing her lover getting married.
- Another storm breaks out at the end as the rusalka is overturning the young man's rowboat.
- Enthralling Siren: The rusalka enthralls the apprentice with her beauty and her singing voice, and lures him into the river. She then flips him out of his rowboat and attempts to drown him. The old monk intervenes.
- The Fair Folk: The rusalka isn't a cute mermaid, she is an evil spirit who lures young men to their deaths by drowning.
- Flashback: One brief flashback shows the old monk as a young man, having fun sledding with the woman who became the rusalka. A second flashback shows the old monk as a young man getting married, and the horror of the young woman when she sees this.
- Our Mermaids Are Different: As noted above, the rusalka solve the Mermaid Problem by being fully human in body. That's because they aren't actually fish people: they are the spirits of young women who either drowned themselves or who were murdered by drowning. And instead of being cutesy, they are malevolent: see The Fair Folk above.
- Shameless Fanservice Girl: The rusalka, being a mermaid/siren, isn't at all shy about swimming around in the river in the nude—all the better to seduce the young apprentice. She does deign to wear a frilly white dress when appearing to the young apprentice on land.
- Silence Is Golden: There's some dialogue, like the old monk's prayers, or the priest reciting a wedding service, but the story is told without words.
- Sirens Are Mermaids: The rusalka is basically a cross between the two, living in the water like a fish, but with a human body and luring men to their deaths.
- Snow Means Death: It's snowing in the final scene where the young apprentice is working on the cabin's roof, while the camera pans to the graves of the old monk and the rusalka, overlooking the river.
- Spurned into Suicide: The young woman, in the backstory, saw her lover marrying another woman. She then drowned herself in the river. The suicide is not shown, so the story might be unclear to Western viewers unfamiliar with the myth of the rusalka and how they are created.
- Swing Low, Sweet Harriet: Having fully human bodies, the rusalka can go on land, and this one does, further enchanting the young monk by swinging on a swing in a lovely dress, and laughing.
- Together in Death: The old monk frantically dives into the river and battles the rusalka. He saves his apprentice, but he himself drowns. The underwater battle cuts to a scene of the apprentice on the riverbank shaking his head, the corpses of the old monk and the rusalka intertwined together a few yards away. The film then ends with a shot of two side-by-side graves. (In rusalka mythology, the rusalka could end her undead existence and die for real if her death was avenged, which presumably happens when the old monk drowns.)
- Your Cheating Heart: It seems that the old monk, in his callow youth, two-timed the young woman he was sleeping with by marrying someone else. The heartbroken young woman drowned herself and became a rusalka.