Director: Agnieszka Smoczynska
Stars: Michalina Olszanska, Marta Marzurek, Kinga Preis
The prospect of an independent horror movie being seriously about mermaids is a lure in and of itself. Make it Polish and also a musical and curiosity goes into overdrive, especially with the striking artwork that accompanied promotion of Agnieszka Smoczynska’s 2015 debut feature. And yet while little corners of the internet percolated over this picture with the kind of brevity such perceived novelties attract on social media, a UK release remained elusive. Fortunately for those hooked by the premise, Criterion Collection have provided us with a splendid home release.
There are catchy songs aplenty here, but Disney’s The Little Mermaid this ain’t. The murky marine waters that open the picture provide the template for the colour palette going forward as two teenage sisters from the sea, Golden (Michalina Olszanska) and Silver (Marta Marzurek) emerge on land, discovered by a practising goth band. Lo, they end up as curiosities at a grotty little club that, for the purposes of the movie, acts as a microcosm of the entertainment industry. The two worlds call one another through song, sirens on both sides, and a knowingly ludicrous rock opera seems set to unfurl.
Yet for all it’s wry self-acknowledgement and neon campiness, The Lure manages to break out of the shackles of kooky oddity. Smoczynska’s film also plays well as a new take on adolescence and the otherness of puberty, making it a whimsier counterpoint to Julia Ducournau’s astonishing Raw from earlier this year. Golden and Silver are in their late teens and both have sexual curiosities that prove part of their motivation for coming ashore. Neither girls nor fully rounded and mature women, their ability to shift from human to mermaid form reflects their inbetweenness. For narrative purposes, they girls shift from one form to the other via contact with water, but this wetness belies an overt sexual suggestion; the transformative nature of awakening.
As human girls they have no sex organs, but in their mermaid forms they do; vaginal orifices in their piscine tails the likes of which David Cronenberg would be immensely proud of. For the record, Smoczynska chooses to rely on practical effects work (though CG enhancements are made), and the two young actors wear their seven-foot tails, which they were able to operate themselves via pedals within the ‘outfits’. The physicality of their remarkable forms adds weight to the film and the effect sells itself.
Anyone who’s been to a halfway decent burlesque show will be prepared for the experience of watching The Lure, which takes sexualised play and weaves it fluently with a crafty degree of comedy. The songs and their settings are smartly choreographed highlights, but the sensibility is defiantly Eastern European. The Polish streak for absurdist humour extracted from character study and social class is well catered for (we’re all oddities after all), and with its commitment to everyday locales, it retains a certain earthiness as a baseline. Sure, all the catering staff dance along behind the scenes, but the world of The Lure has quickly established and recognisable rules that ground it in the familiar.
Smoczynska seems to have a natural talent for combining the fantastic and the every day. One scene of domestic violence ends with the air dizzy with feathers from busted sofa cushions, but the director transitions from this to snowfall (itself a little magical for its scarcity) and from there we’re able to move fluidly into a musical number. Without such connective tissue these two opposing styles might jar. Said musical number then contrasts the sad banality of a family in civil war with the bloody realities of how exactly Golden and Silver feed. The musical number softens the blow again, allowing different worlds to exist in the space of a cut.
The girls are happy to exploit their otherness for audiences, seeking fame and dreaming of heading to America. Their exploiters are the kinds of men we would expect; seedy club owners or inferior patriarchs. For the most part, however, Golden and Silver sit above their human male contemporaries. Their burgeoning femininity yielding a power of its own to allow them to fight for themselves. But it is in matters of the heart that they display their naivety and the coming of age angle reasserts itself. One such story line leads the film into the realms of the rarely observed sub-genre of surgical horror as Smoczynska twists Hans Christian Andersen’s outdated Little Mermaid worldview (Angela Lowell expands on this in her astute liner notes for this release). Even heart-eating mermaids make mistakes.
Horror movies without affection for the genre are easy to spot, and while The Lure isn’t an outright horror picture, it is a creature feature in which blood will flow. When it treads in these waters, it does so confidently and with enough attention to detail and investment to suggest that the production is a labor of love rather than a cash cow for whatever’s next. As for Smoczynska, the assured work displayed ought to open up further opportunities, though for the time being she is working on new material in her native Poland. For now The Lure is a smirking, playful cult title for those seeking something a little unusual this Halloween season. In the process it has as much heart as it has bite.