La La Land may be headed for Academy Awards history next month (thanks to its record-tying 14 Oscar nominations), but come this Wednesday (Feb. 1), it won’t even be the best musical playing in theaters. Instead, that distinction will go to The Lure, the first feature of Polish director Agnieszka Smoczynska, and a film that, like Damien Chazelle’s retro hit, focuses on two young people who find themselves torn between personal and professional desires while being seduced by the glitzy, glamorous entertainment spotlight.
Except, however, that the protagonists of Smoczynska’s tale are mermaid sisters. Who work in a seedy cabaret in 1980s Warsaw. And eat people.
As original as it is both entrancing and horrifying, The Lure is a fearsomely assured debut for Smoczynska, who here crafts a fairy tale that feels as if the whimsical fantasy of Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Amélie, The City of Lost Children) had been filtered through the body-horror of David Cronenberg (The Fly, The Brood). Yet even that doesn’t quite convey the idiosyncratic tone struck by this import, which opens with mythic sea creatures Silver (Marta Mazurek) and Gold (Michalina Olszanska) emerging from the deep to watch a rock trio—Kinga Preis’ singer, Jakub Gierszal’s bass player, and Andrzej Konopka’s drummer, all of whom remain unnamed—goofing off on the shore. They entrance these humans with a song, and the next thing you know, Silver and Gold are in human form, hanging out backstage at the club at which the band plays. To see if they’re worth employing as strippers/singers, the establishment’s sleazy owner (Zygmunt Malanowicz) has Silver and Gold undress so he can inspect their lack of genital orifices (“smooth like Barbie” coos the drummer)—except, that is, for when they’re sprinkled with water and regrow their tails, which have a hole fit for penetration.
Things don’t get more normal from there. Silver and Gold are first asked to back up the band, who sing synth-based Euro-pop originals as well as English disco staples (notably, Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love”). Soon, though, they’re given their own time to shine as pop duo “The Lure,” mainly because everyone who frequents the place is hypnotized by the fact that they’re mermaids. That includes Gierszal’s bassist, who despite carrying on a clandestine affair with Preis’ singer (who’s also involved with Konopka’s drummer), strikes up a relationship with Silver, a blonde-haired naïf with a romantic streak. Their relationship, however, doesn’t sit too well with intimidating, independent brunette Gold, who views her new human acquaintances with wariness and distrust—since they seem eager to exploit and/or control her—when she’s not sizing them up as her next meal.
The Lure is, at heart, a dark, wild riff on Hans Christian Andersen’s original The Little Mermaid crossed with a vampire/monster movie, especially once Gold begins enticing innocent men and women—mermaids being bisexual, apparently—to their lustful doom. In Gold’s predatory behavior and Silver’s seduction of Gierszal’s bassist, the latter of which is first consummated in a bathtub, Smoczynska strikes a pitch-perfect balance between ecstasy and terror. For the film’s characters as well as its viewers, Gold and Silver inspire both attraction and repulsion, with their youthful, nubile allure offset (or is it enhanced?) by their fanged mouths, scaly appendages, and otherworldly lethality.
That twisted dynamic is amplified by Smoczynska’s music video aesthetics. Routinely having characters break into new wave numbers that vacillate—or wholly blur the line—between reality and fantasy, the director (and cinematographer Jakub Kijowski) casts Gold and Silver as visions of spellbinding sexuality. One moment they’re innocent girls on a pervy old man’s casting couch à la a Brazzers porn scene, the next they’re Hammer horror monstrosities slinking back into the ocean after having ingested their latest victim, a blood-red heart still clenched in their jaws. From gaudy stage to skeezy dressing rooms, The Lure suggests some trashy Eastern-European genre update of Cabaret in which it’s unclear if the villains are the selfish, backstabbing humans, or the literal fish-women with a taste for flesh. And at least during a prolonged musical set piece through the passed-out band’s filthy apartment, it also resembles a hallucinatory Polish redo of Fiona Apple’s notorious “Criminal” video.
In terms of plotting, Smoczynska cares little for point-by-point lucidity; her goal is to immerse one in reverie of love, loss, yearning, sacrifice and sinister hungers. Gold tells Silver that she’ll lose her voice if she chooses to give up her tail for legs, but that warning does little to dissuade her, culminating in a gorgeously creepy surgical procedure performed by a doctor who seems unsure if he wants to puke or dance. Later, Gold informs her sibling that she’ll turn into sea foam if her beloved chooses to marry another (unless, that is, she devours him before daybreak), even as Silver finds herself increasingly drawn to the temptations of human life, such as cigarettes. Beneath its outrageous exterior, The Lure is a coming-of-age story that understands that staying true to yourself is inevitable—we are what we are, in the end—and yet is often still a complicated process, fraught with prickly conflicts and contradictions.
With gone-to-rot junkie-chic beauty, Smoczynska’s film swings and sways to its own eccentric beat, eventually branching out to also present portraits of adult longing (via Preis’ dream of simultaneously nursing Gold and Silver as a mother-mermaid) and go-for-broke rebellion (courtesy of Marcin Kowalczyk’s mohawked punk rock King Triton, who boasts gnarly scars from where his horns were ripped out of his skull). Even when its narrative particulars get lost in the supernatural shuffle, The Lure has an impressive sense of purpose and direction. And in its surprisingly affecting finale, it embraces a mature view of love as only true when it’s selfless—no matter how that unselfishness manifests itself. It’s a sterling whatsit of a debut, heralding an arresting new voice in international cinema and reconfirming the enduring vitality (and malleability) of the movie musical. Heed its surreal siren call.