In Filmmaker Magazine, director Agnieszka Smoczynska called The Lure a “coming-of-age story” born of her past as the child of a nightclub owner: “I grew up breathing this atmosphere.” What she means to say, I’m guessing, is that The Lure is an even more restlessly plotted Boyhood if the Texan movie rebooted The Little Mermaid as a murderous synth-rock opera. (OK, maybe it’s nothing like Boyhood.) Smoczynska’s film resurrects prototypical fairy tale romance and fantasy without any of the false notes associated with Hollywood’s “gritty” reboot culture. Poland, the 1980s and the development of its leading young women provide a multi-genre milieu in which the film’s cannibalistic mermaids can sing their sultry, often violently funny siren songs to their dark hearts’re content.
The film begins in the water off a Polish beach, wherein two teenage mermaid sisters, Golden (Michalina Olszanska) and Silver (Marta Mazurek), swim and click to each other in a language not unlike that of dolphins. They’re only stopped when they hear a melody and voices: A drunken band goofs off on the beach and the camera’s slow approach on the edge of the water flavors the proceedings with a healthy dose of Jaws-like fear.
“Help us come ashore…we won’t eat you, dear,” they croon to the shaggy-haired heartthrob, bassist Mietek (Jakub Gierszal). Under their spell, his infatuation, as he heads nearer and nearer to the dreamlike beasts calling to him, is only interrupted by the piercing scream of the band’s singer (Kinga Preis). Smoczynska immediately situates the film between the realms of horror and erotica—a particularly youthful combination which any post-Goth audience members will snap up like herons feeding in the river. When the sisters accompany the ensemble back to their home base nightclub in a hazily-explained mixture of curiosity, hunger and attraction, this ambient anxiety remains. The pair are hired on as strippers and backup singers for the band because nightclub owners are sleazy and the duo have no qualms showing off their newly-obtained lower halves (they sprout legs when dry, regrowing their tails when wet).
Club audiences, as you may imagine, are entranced by the mermaids’ seductive transformations and voices. Regularly abandoning a strange subplot about a fantasy underworld of sorts to revel in disco-inflected musical numbers, the camera catches every piece of grime and dazzling sequin at hand. Some of these numbers are in the nightclub, others in a shopping montage—none are forgettable. The kitschy Europop covers the band lays down are an inescapably catchy foundation for the rest of the film’s insanity, leaving you to nod your head even when the Polish lyrics come steeped in their own linguistic idiosyncrasies: “Holy moly, bitter tastes can be delicious as hell / Picking at love’s cracked-up shells.”
While Ariel the mermaid Disney princess finds empathy with young girls who watch her struggle with feelings of longing and entrapment, The Lure’s flesh-hungry, viscous, scaly fish-people are a gross, haptic and ultimately effective metaphor for the maturation of this same audience. In the water, the pair are innocent to the ways of humans (adults), but on land develop slimes and odors unfamiliar to themselves and odd (yet strangely attractive) to their new companions. Reckoning with bodily change, especially when shoved into the sex industry like many immigrants to Poland during the collapse of that country’s communist regime in the late ’80s, the film combines the politics of the time with the sexual politics of a girl becoming a woman (of having her body politicized).
Bodies are extremely important to The Lure, despite the vampiristic Golden’s lackluster plot line around sating her heart-and-larynx bloodlust. The smoky, sweaty, dangerously weird style Smoczynska is so good at mapping onto a myriad of genres are strongest when she’s either admiring or fearing a character’s form. When the hypnotic Silver admires Mietek, his heroin chic turns full rock star; when the audience ogles the topless mermaids, the fantastic becomes tangible sexual desire. The cast is often nude (in human form, Golden and Silver have Ken-doll-smooth pelvises) and with their nudity comes punishment. In fact, only bad (or creepy) things happen without clothes in this movie, culminating in a horrifically shot bifurcating surgery to replace Silver’s tail with a more sexually accessible set of permanent legs that feels like it came out of a Han Christian Andersen retelling of Requiem For A Dream.
The film’s aesthetic is its unassailable strength. Despite a somewhat muddy plot of oscillating energies, it always looks like the kind of thing Hot Topic wishes it could dream up. Production designer Joanna Macha and costume designer Katarzyna Lewinska dress Preis in a multitude of different costumes, highlighting the club singer’s desperate chameleonic need to please audiences as a part of the songs she performs. The effects work and the musical numbers are delightfully pitch-perfect, the film’s monstrous tails and gory violence as given to a B-movie tone as the bubblegum dance remixes are throbbingly coke-fueled.
Meanwhile, the romantic plot’s riff on The Little Mermaid glints with sly mockery and a black humor, fitting right in with the rest of the film. Mietek falls in love with another woman, leaving a heartbroken Silver as merely the fish he always told her she was. Though the story is filled with more fantastic beasts and oddball mythology than something starring Newt Scamander, these aspects are mostly undeveloped window dressing to the through line of star-crossed storybook love. (The sacrifice and physical pain endured by Silver for the sake of an unfaithful human is straight from the “mermaid cursed by the Sea Witch to feel knives under her feet with every misbegotten step she takes” playbook.)
A climatic nod to fleeting teenage love and historic myth leaves the film with a satisfyingly strange conclusion. And though The Lure may bite off more human neck than it can chew, especially during its music-less plot wanderings, it’s just so wonderfully consistent in its oddball vision you won’t be able to help but be drawn in by its mesmerizing thrall.
Director: Agnieszka Smoczynska
Writer: Robert Bolesto
Starring: Michalina Olszanska, Marta Mazurek, Kinga Preis, Jakub Gierszal, Andrzej Konopka
Release Date: February 1, 2017