When the audience finally gets a good look at a fantastical creature in The Lighthouse, director Robert Eggers has already been playing mind tricks to the point where it's impossible to tell whether the figure is a hallucinatory product of delusion or truly involves mystical forces messing with the minds of wickies Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) and Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe). What's immediately clear, however, is that this mermaid, portrayed by Valeriia Karaman, which appears to Pattinson's Ephraim is not cut from the same cloth as, say, Daryl Hannah in Splash. For one, her, uh, sexual organ is plainly visible and extremely large. Yes, one of the most shocking parts of The Lighthouse involves a big mermaid vagina.
"Well," Eggers starts when I ask about the mermaid vagina, before explaining that the major source of inspiration came from female shark genitals, "we were looking at oysters and shellfish that sort of like looked labial. But the shark vagina had some things about it that look slightly human."
The film's makeup effects team, comprised of Kathy Tse and Adrian Morot, built the prosthetic for Karaman's mermaid, who Ephraim spots near the rocky coast in the midst of a raging storm that keeps him and Dafoe's Thomas imprisoned on the tiny island where the lighthouse sits. From early on in the film, Ephraim has been captivated by the idea of a mermaid, lusting after and caressing a wooden figurine of one he finds in the sleeping quarters that he shares with Thomas. Whether or not Karaman's character is a figment of Ephraim's imagination is up to the viewer to determine: Is she a product of his deranged, horny mind? Or is she a personification of the sea, luring him to his demise?
Regardless of her corporeality in the context of the narrative, putting the mermaid on screen required real and intricate work from Tse and Morot, including building a genital structure complete with air bladders that, according to Eggers, can be "puppeteered" and move. The artists also painted the fin in tones that aren't visible in the film's harsh black and white. "It was very grounded and earthy and believable," Eggers says.
The actual mermaid anatomy also has unexpected secrets. "What appears to be extremely large outer labia are actually pelvic fins that many fish have," Eggers explains, noting that if she were swimming they would look like they were there for the purpose of helping her glide through the water. "But they are sort of splayed out" when revealed to a horny-for-mermaids Ephraim in the movie, he adds.
Pattinson, for his part, says: "The vagina was really funny." The bizarre humor of the very big vagina feeds into the sexual tension and eroticism of The Lighthouse, all part of Eggers' disorienting descent into self-destructive mania.