There’s something in the water — no threat so tangible as a shark or a stingray, but a seductive, insidious pull into the blue — in “How to Meet a Mermaid,” and the more writer-director Coco Schrijber attempts to identify it, the more tauntingly it floats away from us. A distinctly personal expression of mourning that shifts, by turns, into a more esoteric rumination on man’s ever-uneasy relationship to the ocean, this visually and sonically imposing essay pic is most effective (and affecting) when it concentrates on Schrijber’s first-hand investigation into the unexplained maritime disappearance of her older brother. Attempts later in the film to weave his tragic story with two unrelated tales of the sea’s secrets are less immediately involving, though the whole is elegantly enigmatic enough to snag the attention of further doc-fest programmers and perhaps some boutique-label buyers.
“I would prefer breathing to not breathing,” a quote attributed to William Faulkner, appears on screen near the beginning of “How to Meet a Mermaid.” It’s the first in a varied, oblique range of cultural reference points, from Virginia Woolf to “Pippi Longstocking” to archive recordings of John F. Kennedy, that Schrijber — a longtime documentary experimentalist who won several international festival gongs for her homelessness-themed 2004 short “Mooie wereld” — uses to articulate her own curious, conflicted emotional state. Faulkner’s words may offer no middle ground between life and death, yet Schrijber’s absent brother Lex appears to occupy, for her at least, a kind of spiritual limbo: Years after vanishing underwater on a Red Sea diving expedition with friends, his body remains undiscovered. Speaking with Lex’s cohorts and his psychiatrist, Schrijber expresses her conviction that he committed suicide, yet closure eludes her: “Why can’t we believe in the decisions our loved ones make?” she asks, perhaps more of herself than anyone.
In puzzling out how the waters claimed his life and retained the evidence, Schrijber finds a kindred tragedy of sorts in another, equally mysterious empty space: of Rebecca Coriam, the young British crew member of a vast Disney cruise liner whose unexplained disappearance from the ship off the coast of Mexico made headlines in 2011. It’s a case still under shrouded inquiry, and where the helmer takes a kind of passively poetic approach to processing her brother’s death, the film’s manner here shifts markedly to one of anxious, untrusting investigation, as possibilities extending to murder and cover-up are broached. Additionally, the film here supplies speculative, from-the-beyond narration from “Rebecca” herself — a creative leap that won’t sit well with all viewers, though whether Schrijber is exploiting her story or channeling her own grief through it is a matter of interesting debate.
A shorter, intermediate segment of the film, bridging the uncertain fates of Lex and Rebecca with the testimony of Miguel, a young Mexican surfer preparing for his own oceanic odyssey, is the film’s most sketchily developed and thematically opaque, though its more hopeful tenor provides welcome tonal contrast.
Which is not to say that “How to Meet a Mermaid” is by and large a downbeat or severe film. There’s much melancholic whimsy here, while the filmmaker’s consistent fascination with the physical and symbolic properties of the ocean producers some moments of actual cinematic rapture: Lars Skree’s serenely composed, crystalline widescreen lensing regards the water with suitable awe, with aerial shots of whirling turquoise currents, or slow-motion profiles of cresting waves, that wouldn’t be out of place in a David Attenborough spectacle. (Or, for that matter, a latter-day Terrence Malick one.) Composer Mark Lizier, meanwhile, may earn MVP status on the pic with a lushly thrumming, sometimes brittly tingling score that gives suitably siren-like voice to the sea itself. A singular, perhaps intentionally frustrating cri de coeur, “How to Meet a Mermaid” may find its maker wrestling with bitterly mixed emotions about the life aquatic, but casual disdain is never remotely on the cards.