Simply being a flashy, splashy novelty that defies categorization won’t carry a film to greatness all on its own, but as Polish director Agnieszka Smoczynska’s stupefying feature debut The Lure illustrates, it can still take a film damn far. At the most reductive level, The Lure is a Mermaid Movie, but even that characterization is misleading, as it inevitably invites comparisons to Splash and The Little Mermaid (but hopefully not Aquamarine). Granted, the plot of Smoczynska’s film borrows from the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale only slightly less freely than did Disney’s 1989 animated feature. Furthermore, The Lure unmistakably alludes to Ron Howard’s 1984 fantasy romcom in certain shots. Substantively, however, Smoczynska’s film is not merely a different creature than its mermaid movie antecedents, but a wholly unique specimen.
The surest sign that The Lure is something bracingly imaginative is that it’s exceedingly challenging to describe exactly what the hell kind of film it is. Many of its vividly realized elements are taken directly from horror cinema, but the film is not scary in the least. It is only a romance in the loosest sense, given how disinterested it is in the emotional contours of its central romantic relationship. What little comedy exists in the film is distinctly dry and eccentric, less a product of the writing or performances than of some modestly amusing choices in visual composition and production design. The most accurate genre descriptor might be musical, as The Lure includes both Chicago-style diegetic performances—much of the film takes place in a Warsaw burlesque club in the 1980s—as well as more fantastical, non-diegetic numbers. Unquestionably, the tone of the film is damn slippery. Its closest cinematic kin might be the more demented yet po-faced subspecies of rock operas like Phantom of the Paradise, The Apple, and Repo! The Genetic Opera, although there’s also unmistakably some Cabaret in Robert Bolesto’s screenplay.
The story concerns two curious mermaid chanteuses, Golden (Michalina Olszcanska) and Silver (Marta Mazurek), who venture onto land to immerse themselves in Warsaw’s decadent nightlife in the final, chaotic decade of the Polish People’s Republic. Their entry point into this world is the Fig-n’-Dates, the house musical act at a popular and slightly shady burlesque club. The band includes singer and keyboardist Wokalistka (Kinga Preis), drummer Perkusista (Andrzej Knopka), and bassist Mietek (Jakub Gierszal). It is Mietek’s acoustic guitar noodling while on a moonlit beach that initially draws Golden and Silver into this glittery, unsavory world. It’s also the young and handsome bassist that unsurprisingly upsets the bond between the two mermaids—the film is unclear on whether Golden and Silver are biological sisters—and threatens to derail their vague plans to travel to America.
Distilled down to its raw elements, The Lure’s plot is a standard-issue fairy tale in the romantic tragedy vein, although Bolesto and Smoczynska are to be commended for privileging the Grimmer aspects of such stories. The mermaids’ tails are unexpectedly grotesque appendages: enormous masses of muscle covered in grayish-brown scales and spines, more befitting a mudskipper than a tropical, coral-dwelling fish. Golden and Silver can assume a bipedal form—which disconcertingly lacks both vagina and anus—but a sprinkle of water will revert them to their true form. Most ghoulishly, the mermaids have a taste for human flesh, and while it is not portrayed as a necessity for their survival, this hunger for fresh prey proves to be a vexing distraction. (This, combined with the mermaids’ frequent nudity, unavoidably recalls the late Tobe Hooper’s “naked space vampire” spectacle Lifeforce.)
The Lure’s most conspicuous weakness is its narrative, in part due to Smoczynska’s refusal to settle on a single character for the film’s point-of-view. This wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if The Lure were merely switching back and forth between the perspectives of Golden and Silver, treating them as dual protagonists who experience the human world in subtly yet meaningfully different ways. However, Smoczynska seems to believe that the film’s secondary and tertiary characters, particularly the other members of the Fig-n’-Dates, also warrant a generous helping of screen time. While these characters might be compelling or at least modestly entertaining, the film doesn’t provide much in the way of story-based or thematic rationale for its digressions to check in on them. It’s most noticeable in the case of Wokalistka, whose cluster of middle-age anxieties regarding her looks, livelihood, and latent maternal urges is a source of fascination for Smoczynska, even though it does little to enrich the film’s story.
A related issue is the preponderance of extraneous subplots. One of these involves another dilettante mythical sea creature, Tryton (Marcin Kowalczyk), who is posing as the lead vocalist in a heavy metal band. (Not incidentally, the scars from his amputated horns are less noticeable in that music scene.) He seems to be taken with Golden, and invites her to sing at one of his group’s performances, but thereafter his storyline just peters out. Ditto Golden’s cat-and-mouse games with the police detective investigating the recent spate of riverside murders. This rivalry abruptly twists into a heated mutual sexual infatuation, and is then abandoned by the film just as quickly.
In one seemingly pivotal passage, the human members of the nightclub's band come to blows over what appears to be a romantic rivalry, but is mainly attributable to some sort of lethal poisoning. They are saved from this toxin by one of the club’s burlesque singers, who administers an intravenous antidote while crooning them back to consciousness. Or something. Between the confusing editing and Smoczynska’s generally sloppy storytelling, it’s unclear what the hell is going on and what this scene’s relevance is to the rest of the plot. It’s tempting to hand-wave away this sort of apparent clumsiness as an expression of The Lure’s more surrealist inclinations. However, such excuses disregard how expertly attuned the film's surrealism is to the distinctive vibe of an acid rock opera. It’s kitschy, fanciful, and charmingly weird rather than outright absurdist, which just makes the fatally muddled passages even more frustrating.
Fortunately, The Lure is such a bottomless source of dazzling style, it ultimately doesn’t matter that the plot is hazy and careless, or that Golden and Silver are portrayed without much psychological complexity. (In the film’s favor, they are cold-blooded creatures of legend, and therefore it seems appropriate that they are depicted as simultaneously unworldly and unfathomable.) The Lure is a story of simple-minded longings complicated by disobliging reality. However, the sort of unabashed pathos that invigorates most musicals isn’t a part of the film’s arsenal. Smoczynska is more attentive to style than to substance, but unlike, say, Moulin Rouge!, her film doesn’t compensate for its garish shallowness by diving headfirst into gooey, soaring emotion. Instead, the director maintains a bit of distance from her characters, preferring to allow the story’s mythical resonance, redolent design, and funky energy to do the heavy lifting. In short, the film might be light on genuine heart, but it boasts oodles of personality.
In this, The Lure is a somewhat startling success. Even though it has hardly any likable characters—Silver comes closest, but her girlish naiveté is more pitiable than charming—it’s nonetheless a preposterously fun film, drunk on both the dissolute glitziness of its setting and the broad potential of color, motion, and music. The Polish lyrics might sound a little awkward to American ears at first, but halfway through the first big musical number, the viewer will likely find themselves grooving on the distinctive Slavic rhythms and rhymes. This, ultimately, is what powers The Lure, in terms of both narrative and theme: the potent black magic of song. Perhaps it’s a bit on the nose for a film about supernatural sirens to revel in the contagious power of pop tunes, but no one ever has accused musicals of being a subtle genre. Smoczynska often uses a whale-like tone to indicate that the mermaids are working their mind-control mojo on a human. However, she pointedly leaves it ambiguous whether any literal magic is involved when, say, Golden and Silver’s Blade Runner-themed synth-pop number coerces everyone in the club, wait staff included, to unite in a gyrating throng on the dance floor.
Visually speaking, The Lure is a marvelously vibrant film, without descending into the kind of mannered sterility that sometimes characterizes self-conscious European art-horror fare. Smoczynska and her cinematographer Jakub Kijowski at times flirt with overly familiar aesthetic modes—late 90s nu metal music video here, faux-De Palma erotic thriller there—but they flit so weightlessly from one stylistic approach to the next that it feels more like exuberant sampling than triteness. Fittingly for a film that centers on the fleshy yet otherworldly sensuality of a pair of aquatic demon-nymphs, The Lure is visually balanced at the intersection of dingy urban verisimilitude and dreamy, bubbly illusion. The film’s production design possesses an appealing lived-in grubbiness that feels exactly right for its setting, while also lacking the historical self-consciousness that could have made it distracting. Strictly speaking, it’s not realistic, but unlike, say the over-elaborate East Berlin chic of the recent Atomic Blonde, it feels unforced. The burlesque club is a singular wonder of understated design, glittery and modern but revealing its late-period Eastern Bloc provenance in the slightly chintzy materials and haphazardly planned spaces. The flamboyant music fashion is likewise evocative, from the Fig-n’-Dates’ white-on-white suits and skinny ties to the black leather, chrome spikes, and ragged fishnets at Tryton’s punk-tinged metal show. (Nothing, however, tops Wokalistka’s curly, strawberry blonde Donna Summers wig.)
Meanwhile, Smoczynska often juxtaposes the neon glam and Communist gloom with a perverse sensibility drawn from the film’s horror pedigree. There’s more than a little David Cronenberg in the mermaids’ repulsive, amphibious morphology, but the film’s dominant mode is a mélange of the gothic and the gorehound. This is hardly surprising when the film’s monsters blend the characteristics of cinematic vampires and werewolves, but what makes The Lure’s imagery linger is the unpredictable ways that it expresses its weird gestalt of genre tropes.
Nowhere is this more in evidence than when Silver visits a black-market surgeon to have her fish tail amputated and replaced with a human donor’s legs. The scenario is a ludicrous, even by the standards of the film’s fantasy logic, but Smoczynska discerns its potent cinematic potential. And so, she delivers: Silver lies on a bed of chipped ice like a tuna steak, her body bisected horizontally just above the navel, her intestines spilling from her torso, surgeons milling around her, as she sings softly and longingly about the land-bound life that she imagines will bring her love and happiness. Brothers Grimm eat your hearts out.