Fish Tale Soup Commentary

Fish Tale Soup (1997) is a romantic comedy about a woman’s desperate attempts to conceive a child. Ironically, Vivi (Kathleen Lasky) works at the local pound, where it is her job to put animals down when space is at a premium. She has become blasé about her role as exterminator to the animal kingdom, offering them a last cigarette and then smoking it herself.

Vivi’s husband, Paul (John Jarvis) is not so sure that he really wants a child. He works as a music therapist to severely handicapped children and is secretly worried about what he would do if his own child were handicapped. Paul’s job is under threat due to government cutbacks unless he can offer the trustees a concert in which his students display their musical prowess. Of course, this is not what music therapy is about; but Paul feels so disempowered by the situation at home, that he agrees to the concert.

Paul and Vivi have just moved into an almost derelict building, which they have decided to spend the next decade repairing, even though Paul knows nothing about home repair. In the meantime, they have painted every surface of the house in bright colours that resemble life in a coral reef. Painted fish are everywhere: on the ceiling, the walls, the furniture. And real fish are in aquariums located in every room. The fish all have names.

Vivi’s life revolves between work (where she is surrounded by life waiting for death), her house (where she is surrounded by painted representations of life), and the fertility clinic (where she is surrounded by artificial promises of life). Some of the funniest moments of the film occur in the clinic. Vivi’s doctor is convinced that science will find an answer to her failure to conceive; it is just a question of deciding on the right artificial procedure. He is totally disengaged from her as a human being; she is just a cog in the evolution of scientific method. Vivi is highly motivated to go along with all the poking, prodding, charting, graphing, and measuring. But Paul is reluctant to continue. He loves his wife, but he is beginning to feel like a lab rat.

Into this stalemate shambles Marcus, an angel played charmingly by Rémy Girard. Pretending to be a refugee of uncertain origin in search of asylum, Marcus insinuates himself into their home and their lives. He cooks wonderful meals for them, as fish mysteriously begin to disappear from their tanks. It becomes clear to the audience that, as an angel, Marcus has a function, which is to encourage conception. He has love potions, he donates sperm to the fertility clinic, he flashes pictures to Vivi of all his “children.”

Angel stories are common enough in feature films. There are the angels who use the world of man to settle their own, otherworldly, scores (The Prophecy 1999); there are the angels who fight to save the world from destruction (Dogma 1999); angels who are motivated by personal needs (Ghost 1990); and angels who come to help others (Bogus 1996). Marcus falls into this final category. He has come at a crisis in the relationship between Paul and Vivi and his intervention is finally successful.

Sadly, Girard’s talents are never fully exploited in this film. He is an actor of considerable talent, receiving nine nominations for a Genie and an unprecedented four awards for his roles in Les portes tournantes (1988), Jésus de Montréal (1989), Amoureux fou (1991) and Les Invasions barbares (2003).

The movie has some good moments, mostly focused on Vivi’s increasingly bizarre and silly attempts to align herself with any cosmic force that will allow her to conceive. But it never manages to bring all its disparate parts together into an experience that makes the audience care about what happens to this couple.

Lasky manages the low key humour beautifully; she has a plastic face and wonderful timing, which keeps the audience engaged while she is on screen. Rémy Girard plays the angel with just the right note of quirky mystery; the audience is continually off guard wondering what he is going to do next. But there are so many disconnected bits in the film that feel like lost opportunities. The reason for Vivi’s drive to conceive is never really addressed. The gratuitous visit from her parents brings nothing to the plot. The décor of the house and all the fish tanks could have been explained or tied to the plot somehow, but weren’t. Are they supposed to remind us of sperm? The angel seems to alternate between eating the tropical fish and resuscitating them in champagne. Why? His “recipe” book, which presumably holds the key to some of his behaviour and perhaps even to his presence in the house is largely ignored. And the “Fish Tale Soup” of the title is barely eaten by Vivi and never connected adequately to the theme.

Known mainly for her work in documentary, Fish Tale Soup was writer-director, Annette Mangaard’s first foray into feature film.

Evelyn Ellerman