No jokes about fish and visitors please — Agnieszka Smoczyńska’s horror fantasy musical is indeed about delectable creatures from the deep, but these particular mythical misses have their own agenda, and woe to the man who trifles with their affections. What’s today’s catch? A Polish phantasmagoria seemingly teleported from the glitzy 1980s.
The Criterion Collection 896
2015 / Color / 2:39 widescreen / 92 min. / available through The Criterion Collection / Street Date October 10, 2017 / 39.95
Starring: Kinga Preis, Michalina Olszańska, Marta Mazurek, Jakub Gierszał, Andrzej Konopka, Zygmunt Malanowicz, Marcin Kowalczyk.
Cinematography: Kuba Kijowski
Film Editor: Jarosław Kamiński
Production Design: Joanna Macha
Costume: Katarzyna Lewińska
Special Effects makeup: Tomasz Matraszek
Choreography: Kaya Kołodziejczyk and Jarosław Staniek
Original Music and Lyrics: Barbara Wrońska and Zuzanna Wrońska
Written by Robert Bolesto
Produced by Włodzimierz Niderhaus
Directed by Agnieszka Smoczyńska
I’m normally an easy mark for bizarre genre-bending horror fare. I also like musicals of all sorts, and I can further confess to sometimes being impressed by foreign movies that claim artistic pretensions. So I’m not exactly sure why the wholly bizarre Polish horror fantasy musical The Lure didn’t instantly win my allegiance. Is it clever, creative, original? Yes. Is it daring? Yes. Does it have something to say? Maybe so, but it didn’t put me in a receptive frame of mind. Perhaps it’s because the film is faithful to the emotional temperature of its subject: fish are cold.
Describing The Lure requires one to admit that it does not copy any of the films it superficially resembles. As a musical, it can be likened to various glam-disco fantasy fests, like Gillian Armstrong’s Starstruck, the Australian movie. It has a strong ’80s trash aesthetic, with garish colors and designs. The allegorical context presents the film’s arresting leading characters similarly to the tiny ‘Shobijin’ fairies in Toho’s Mothra, magical singer-entertainers that become show-biz singers under strange conditions. Only these girls aren’t miniature songbirds, they’re a particularly icky pair of mermaids, equally capable of singing like sirens and leading unlucky men to their doom.
The picture gained some attention because its director is a woman, Agnieszka Smoczyńska, as are its songwriters, Barbara Wrońska and Zuzanna Wrońska. The actual screenwriter is a man, and this vision of male-female relations is none too appetizing. That is, except for the mermaids, who sometimes eat men.
Eccentric, strange, and with erotic details out of a nightmare, The Lure can be praised for bypassing the prissy ground rules for mainstream entertainment. Then again, it seems intent on earning a slot in the Cult Movie sweepstakes. There’s no need for a full synopsis, but the setup is not difficult to convey.
The manager of an edgy, twisted strip bar (Zygmunt Malanowicz) is surprised when his singer (Kinga Preis), drummer (Andrej Konopka) and bass player Mietek (Jakub Gierszal) show up with a strange pair of naked groupies that just rose from out of the ocean. Gold (‘Zlota,’ Michalina Olszańska) and Silver (‘Srebrna,’ Marta Mazurek) are genuine mermaids. In human form they have no sex organs, but when they’re wet they grow enormous scaled eel-like tails. Not surprisingly, they sing like sirens and seem to like hanging around with human folk. The two become an on-stage sensation. Everybody accepts these enticing, very fishy sea monsters. Mermaid Silver falls in love with Mietek but he balks at consummating their affair because he considers her to be an animal. Meanwhile, Gold sates her impossible amorous needs by slaying and devouring an occasional date. Other mer-people drift into the bar. A more mature mermaid engages Gold in some slippery lesbian mer-sex. The mer-man Triton (Marcin Kowalczyk) also arrives in human form, showing the horrid scars on his scalp where he tore out his own horns. The twin sea creatures engage in more anti-PC behavior until Mietek falls in love and marries a human woman. This is bad news for Silver, the mermaid that loves him — both Triton and Gold say that she has to kill Mietek before dawn, or she’ll be destroyed, changed into sea-foam.
The Lure is an imaginative take on mythical creatures, at times a bit like Harry Kumel’s strange Malpertuis. The show moves along quickly, leaping into its many music video- like musical sequences before you can say Absolute Beginners. The production design is colorful, stylish and eventually a little constricting. We feel a little claustrophobic, stuck in this glitzy nightclub world, a poly-sexual free zone where erotic stripping and soulful singing bear little relation one to another. Drugs and booze don’t seem to have a place in this fantasy world, which sticks to the intoxicants of sex and style. Steamy sex goes on in side rooms but the manager is wary of under-18 girls being in his establishment. Perhaps my own wary attitude toward the film is that its nude mer-women too clearly resemble underage teeny boppers. Maybe it’s an unfair thought, but I’d guess that it’s possible that The Lure might appeal to monster fans that are also into child porn.
The film itself has a legit agenda, reinforced by Angela Lovell’s disc essay, which identifies the original The Little Mermaid as a story about girls becoming women, and learning the cruelties of Love. The mer- sisters innocent demeanor is deceptive, as their playful smiles hide interests ranging from gentle conversation to carnivorous assault. They are women, they are animals, and it’s foolish to dismiss them as harmless sweet things, because sex is powerful magic. The manager is amused to see that, when the girls are in human form, their lower bodies are as featureless as Barbie dolls. An examination of the mermaids’ thick, oily and somewhat unpleasant tails reveals a slit that the men immediately identify as a reproductive orifice. Not that any of them find it sexually attractive. Various men are become fascinated, and the mermaids have a desire to interact with humans. But the fish-women seem sexually frustrated when not cavorting with their own kind.
The tension comes from wondering if these sea creatures are innocents of the deep, or Manson Girls with a scent of seaweed. They smell like fish, a detail that could become a running joke if it were funny. There’s a rich vein of sexual politics to be gleaned (scaled? de-boned?) from The Lure, which celebrates a female sexual identity that embraces a sticky physical reality unrelated to male objectification. Face it, human women are the source of the primal magic in the human condition, the bearing of offspring. These mer-women may just be mer-wymyn in closer touch with their bodies.
But remember that this is still a horror fantasy. The ‘ick’ factor increases when more grisly scenes arrive. Both sisters can sprout mouthfuls of teeth that would be the envy of a barracuda. The original Little Mermaid wanted to become human, and so does Silver. She decides to renounce her mer- identity and undergoes vivisection in a mad surgical horror scene that combines a operating theater with a fish-processing plant. This leap onto a higher level of narrative absurdity is difficult, to say the least. The trans-species identity swap doesn’t change Silver’s essential mermaid nature.
The show does work its way to a logical and formally satisfying fantasy conclusion, but take it from Savant that this isn’t your garden-variety mermaid tale. I’m fond of earlier, charming paternal-centric fantasies that perhaps needed to be refuted. Ann Blyth’s sea nymph in Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid is an erotic manifestation of a middle-age life crisis, before that term was coined. She’s a sexual animal fully capable of accidentally drowning our hero. In the English Miranda Glynis Johns’ very capable mermaid uses her siren’s wiles to upend a proper English household. She gets what she wants from her human boyfriend, in a way that we would have thought the English censors would forbid. Both of those vintage mer-women display elegant fish tails designed by male artists with erotic imaginations. Much later, the forgettable Splash seems a thing of the Reagan years. Even with its peek-a-boo attitude, its Mermaid (Daryl Hannah) is a childlike innocent, a hollow male fantasy.
The Lure conjures up a world of fantastic mer-people that exist for their own reasons, not to coddle the libidos of human male weaklings. They say love makes men into fools, and for Gold or Silver, a hot date can make a great midnight snack!
The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray of The Lure is a good presentation of this oddball Polish picture. The excellent encoding displays the full depth of the images. Dank, greenish rooms with water tanks make a good contrast with the glitz of the musical numbers.
I’d imagine that this might be a good film to set off a discussion about how men and women really relate one to another. Criterion’s extras include plenty of material to feed a debate. Interview coverage with the full contingent of filmmaking talent supports a longer making-of piece and several individual interviews. Some deleted scenes are present, as are two older short films by director Smoczyńska. In her essay for the insert foldout, Angela Lovell spills the beans about The Lure’s revisionism: its revisiting of The Little Mermaid redresses the injustices of that storybook tale to express the issues of girls-becoming-women. The Lure is a violent slap at Hans Christian Andersen, yet its most deserving Mer-woman suffers the same fate as the unlucky sea-nymph in the storybook original.
The most appealing image in The Lure is the vision of Silver, glowing like a fifteen-year-old in anticipation of a kiss from her first boyfriend. I guess They Never Devour The Ones They Love. I respect Ms. Smoczyńska’s picture — it’s an excellent antidote to the romantic Young Adult Literature glop represented by the Twilight franchise.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Movie: Good +
Sound: Excellent (Polish)
Supplements: New program about the making of the film, featuring interviews with director Agnieszka Smoczyńska, actors Marta Mazurek and Michalina Olszańska, screenwriter Robert Bolesto, Kijowski, composers Barbara and Zuzanna Wrońskie, sound designer Marcin Lenarczyk, and choreographer Kaya Kołodziejczyk; Deleted scenes; Aria Diva (2007) and Viva Maria! (2010), two short films by Smoczyńska; Trailer; Insert with an essay by Angela Lovell
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 4, 2017
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson