Mar 162017

The Lure is often violent and disturbing, but its exuberance and unapologetic strangeness make it one of the most memorable foreign films in recent years.

The Lure, directed by Agnieszka Smoczyńska. Screening tonight (March 16) at the Brattle Theatre, Cambridge, MA.

Mermaids dancing in The Lure.

Mermaids dancing in The Lure.

By Peg Aloi

This astonishingly original film has a bit of something for everyone. The Lure has a somewhat unwieldy but fascinating hybrid genre shape (thriller, horror, romance, comedy, arthouse, musical) and layers of supernatural lore (mermaids, sirens, vampires). Winner of a Special Jury Prize at Sundance for Unique Vision and Design (and nominated for the Grand Jury Prize), Polish director Agnieszka Smoczyńska’s 2015 debut is stunning in its audacity and beauty.

Scene from Smoczyńska’s The Lure.

Scene from Smoczyńska’s The Lure.

The film opens with two beautiful teenage girls (named Silver and Gold) emerging from a misty shore and singing to two men (a father and teenage son) and convincing them through their lilting song to help them come on land. A woman lying down on shore suddenly sits up and sees the men, mesmerized, leading the girls ashore, and screams in horror. The family seems to own a nightclub that features singing and exotic dancing, and once they learn the chanteuses are mermaids, able to turn their lithe legs into long, eel-like tails when water is poured on them, it’s decided they’ll make an amazing musical act. Their oddly blank genital area is seen as a possible audience draw, since they’re a bit like Barbie dolls. The girls practice musical numbers and become a hit at the club. Their singing is gorgeous, and part of the fun is seeing the unusual translations from the Polish lyrics in the subtitles.

It must be said, the music is a major element in this film, and it’s a haunting and entertaining one. The music styles adjust based upon the scene content: sometimes they’re pure performance, sometimes commentary, sometimes soliloquy. The songs are often presented within some form of visual spectacle; there’s a full on obsession with 1970s era disco glam, and it’s delightful. The mermaids’ singing is also crucial to the film’s mythology, which is a bit like The Hunger meets The Little Mermaid by way of Carrie. That is to say, these mermaids are also vampires whose adolescent fantasies about boyfriends and fitting in move them to make some bad decisions. There’s some paranormal stuff, too: the sisters communicate telepathically when they want to speak privately. Silver falls in love with the boy who found her, and decides she wants to “get her legs done” (a way of saying she’ll undergo a bizarre and gruesome procedure to give her functioning lady parts). If you know your mermaid lore, you know their singing voices are tied to their mermaid form, and if they become human, they lose their main mode of communication. Of course, this is a feminist trope of sorts: women’s voices are tied to their functions as sexual or domestic beings. And this film is nothing if not overtly and outrageously feminist, subverting and upturning many classic themes and symbols within its mind-bending and trippy visual design.

The performances are also extremely fine, in particular Marta Mazurek as Silver and Michalina Olszanska as Gold. Kinga Preis plays the woman on the shore when the girls were found, and is also the talented but fading lead singer at the club, her glitzy costumes and flashy wigs a perfect accoutrement to her retro songs. She seems to have a complex relationship with Silver and Gold, sometimes maternal, sometimes competitive, sometimes oddly erotic. The realization that she is using the girls as much as the men borders on revelation, but it comes too late to change a calamitous outcome. Silver and Gold seem to have autonomy and control, and mention plans to move on to America after they “hang out” in Warsaw for a while. But they’re eager to live like the other young women they see, and their experimentation with clothes, cosmetics, shoes and flirtation lend a tender layer of sensual detail, and add one more genre to the already crowded description: coming of age. The girls are physically strong, even predatory and vicious, but they make themselves vulnerable when they seek to become empowered within the human milieu. After her transformation, Silver is weakened both in body and in spirit. Gold tries to convince her to reclaim her mermaid identity. Their struggle between these dual aspects of their nature is vividly explored here, and I was reminded of similarly rich retellings of fairy tales and myths in recent cinema.

The Lure is often violent and disturbing, but its exuberance and unapologetic strangeness make it one of the most memorable foreign films I’ve seen in months, right up there with another beautiful Polish horror tale, 2015’s Demon. That film is considerably less graphic and has a more conventional but no less beautiful visual aesthetic—they’d made a heady double feature (Demon won the Best Feature award at the Austin Fantastic Fest). Poland is not a country one usually looks to for excitement in horror cinema, but that may be changing. Smoczyńska is a filmmaker to watch closely.

Peg Aloi is a former film critic for The Boston Phoenix. She has taught film studies for a number of years at Emerson College and is currently teaching media studies at SUNY New Paltz. Her reviews have appeared in Art New England and Cinefantastique Online.


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