305. THE LURE (2015)

Córki Dancingu

“Our mermaids don’t look like sweet mermaids from Disney. We wanted to kill Disney.” –Agnieszka Smoczyńska

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska, Kinga Preis, Jakub Gierszal

PLOT: Two mermaid sisters, Silver and Golden, wash up on the shores of Warsaw. They hook up with a family synth-pop band, joining their act in a seedy nightclub. Their voices bewitch everyone around them, but Golden’s carnivorous appetite and Silver’s infatuation with a young bass player lead to horror and heartbreak.

Still from The Lure (2015)

BACKGROUND:

  • Screenwriter Robert Bolesto was inspired by his friends Zuzia and Basia Wrońska and their childhood growing up around a nightclub in the 1980s. Director Agnieszka Smoczyńska had had a similar childhood experience, and decided to create a horror-fantasy allegory with that setting. The script was initially conceived as a straightforward biography of the sisters, but both the Wrońskas and Smoczyńska felt it was too personal, so the characters were changed to mermaids. Because mermaids are known for singing and the setting was a nightclub, the film easily evolved into a musical.
  • The Wrońska sisters form the Polish-language synth pop band Ballady i Romanse. They composed the music for The Lure. They appear at the end of the film in the wedding scene.
  • Much of the visual style pulls from the art of Aleksandra Waliszewska, who paints twisted, adult fairy tale scenes, as well as photographer Nan Goldin, known for her seedy images of the New York club scene and queer subculture in the 80s.
  • Though it was praised at its Sundance debut, in its native Poland the film received a mixed response. According to Smoczyńska, Poland doesn’t have a tradition of musicals (The Lure has been called Poland’s first musical) or horror. Those elements weren’t advertised at all, so incoming audiences did not realize what they were in for.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Smoczyńsky addresses the reality of mer-people anatomy by showing a mermaid-human transplant. Shot from above, a mermaid lies on ice in a long metal gurney and sings sadly, while a surgeon saws through her torso and then stitches on a pair of human legs (taken from an anonymous woman lying on ice next to her). It is at once clinical, tragic, and sweet, made all the more memorable for being part of a low-key musical number.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Merman punk rocker; breastfeeding mermaids; fish labia

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Though working with some familiar source material, the film manages to feel fresh and strange. The visceral effects and gore matched against the upbeat synth tunes; the fantasy characters in a grimy, all-too-real world; the loss of chronology in the narrative; the sense that nothing is quite what it seems, that there is something under the surface of it all: no single element makes it weird, but rather a host of assorted factors.


Brief musical scene from The Lure

COMMENTS: A simple description of The Lure seems impossible. It’s a many-genred mash-up of horror, fantasy, musical, history, dark comedy, drama, and romance. It’s a coming-of-age allegory, a feminist fairy tale. It’s Hans Christian Andersen meets . It’s a fictional memoir, and an ode to a very specific time and place. Two mermaid sisters come ashore in Warsaw in (presumably) the early 1980s, singing out to a family band composed of singer/keyboardist Krysia (Kinga Preis), her husband the drummer (Andrzej Konopka), and their son and bassist Mietek (Jakub Gierszal). Silver (Marta Mazurek) is fair and sweet and quick to smile, while Golden (Michalina Olszanska) is more serious and more dangerous, with a devious look. They are both ambiguously young and naive in many ways; but they nurse a killer instinct and fangs to match, so that even in this grungy, adult world they never appear as victims.

The sisters are immediately accepted into the family band, performing at their nightclub, showing off their vocal stylings and their transformation from legs to fish tails. They move in with the family, exerting a bewitching influence over them, simultaneously seductive and disgusting. They experience many firsts, from their first drink and smoke to first love. The sweet-natured Silver begins dating the hunky but noncommital son, though Golden warns her against the consequences of falling in love with a human. The two bicker telepathically about her infatuation, while their star continues to rise and their act packs audiences into the nightclub. On the side, Golden sates her carnivorous appetite, killing and eating randomly selected men, as well as a member of the secret police. Eventually their presence causes tension in Krysia’s marriage, and the family attempts to dump the sisters back in the water. The third act sees Silver’s crush on Mietek developing into something serious, ultimately sealing her tragic fate.

Yes, The Lure has a lot going on, and yes, it is overly ambiguous at times, but if you aren’t completely entranced by a lush, synth-driven musical about killer mermaids, then I don’t know how to help you. The film is at times funny, at others tragic, and frequently strange and viscerally gross. The locations pair dingy interiors and rain-soaked streets with neon lights and sequined costumes, with subtle reminders of the oppressive Soviet regime peppered throughout. The design of the mermaids is innovative in its move away from the stereotypical “sexy fishtail”, opting instead for a smelly, slimy, six-foot-long eel-like appendage. The Lure takes elements of folk tales and plunges them into the real world, resulting in horrific undertones, while jerking the viewer in and out of reality with frequent musical interludes.

The soundtrack by Ballady i Romanse is absolutely stellar, emotionally varied but generally sticking to the 80s discotheque vibe. Music as a concept is central to the film: both its hypnotic and its unifying powers are important to the plot. Smoczyńska applies a deft and individualistic style to each number, treating each like an independent music video. The opening number—a cover of Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love”—introduces the glitz and glam of the nightclub scene, as well as its underlying darkness. The camera follows the sleazy manager throughout the building, with the disco tune pumping throughout each room, overtaking customers and staff alike with its irresistible thumping bassline. The sisters’ first full song is an upbeat dance tune styled as a Hollywood musical number; they dance around a department store singing about the material wonders of the human world. Another memorable sequence happens after the family suffers a mass nervous breakdown in their apartment, all collapsing from the strain as a dancer from the club administers drugs to each of them, with feathers from destroyed pillows floating poetically in the hazy light.

While it offers weirdness in spades with its many genre oscillations, perhaps what is most notable about the film is how it subverts tropes relating to gender and sexuality. Silver and Golden are introduced as the typical seductive sirens many myths associate with mermaids, but their naiveté is soon made clear. They are viewed as sex objects from the beginning, but also treated as children due to their lack of understanding of the human world, a sly commentary on the sexualization of young girls so dominant in the media. And yet, their violent, animalistic nature is revealed early on. Smoczyńska has said the goal was not to create victims, but rather “mermaids who’ll fight, who’ll devour.” Silver uses some typical coming-of-age story tropes, including first love and the heartbreak associated with an inconsiderate older man, but then Golden breaks them apart with her strength and aggression. Together the sisters represent both innocence and danger, an otherworldly combo who turn the tables on those who seek to exploit them while still falling for the enticements of the adult world. The Lure juggles a complex dynamic, but the result is an utterly satisfying, thought-provoking, thoroughly weird delight.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“After this simple but stylistically distracted setup, the screenplay runs a little low on blood itself: Beyond relishing the myth-meshing weirdness of the concept, it’s short on ideas as to what to actually do with the mermaids’ vampirism… The sheer driving (or should that be diving?) recklessness of Smoczynska’s aesthetic, then, is what holds ‘The Lure’ together even as its storytelling begins to thrash about.”–Guy Lodge, Variety (festival screening)

“Whatever agenda lurks beneath the surface of [Smoczynska‘s] debut feature is buried beneath a shimmering layer of good old-fashioned weirdness.”–David Ehrlich, Indiewire (festival screening)

“The Lure is most poignant when it simply stares at its own strangeness.”–Diego Semerene, Slant (contemporaneous)

OFFICIAL SITE: Córki Dancingu | Kino Świat – In Polish

IMDB LINK: The Lure (2015)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

The Lure (2015) – The Criterion Collection – Criterion’s page has a  trailer, an essay by Angela Lovell, and a video interview with Smoczyńska

Janus Films – The Lure – Theatrical distributor Janus Films has some stills, the trailer, and a thick, informative press kit

THE LURE – An Introduction by director Agnieszka Smoczynska – The director’s video introduction for U.S. film festival screenings [not safe for work]

Q&A: Director Agnieszka Smoczynska on the Lore of “THE LURE” – Interview with Fangoria

The Lure – Interview: Agnieszka Smoczyńska • Director – Interview with Cineuropa

REPORT: BOSTON UNDERGROUND FILM FESTIVAL 2016 – Alex Kittle’s initial festival thoughts about The Lure

FANTASIA FILM FESTIVAL DIARY, 7/19/2016 (THE LURE) – G. Smalley’s brief additional thoughts on The Lure

DVD INFO: The Criterion Collection released The Lure on DVD (buy) and Blu-ray (buy) in October 2017. Special features include deleted scenes and a making-of program featuring interviews with the director, writer, cast, composers, and choreographer. The disc also includes two short films by Smoczyńska, Aria Diva and Viva Maria, and of course it comes with an essay booklet.

The Lure is also available to buy or rent digitally on demand.

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