As the haunting season lurks on our calendars, The Criterion Collection has begun to release a slate of appropriately horrific films. This week, they are releasing Polish director Agnieszka Smoczynska’s feature film debut, The Lure, a recent horror-musical that made an impact at Sundance in 2016, where it won the entirely deserving jury award for “unique vision and design.” Here I sit, having recently watched the new release, longing for my more innocent version of The Little Mermaid. Alas, those days may be gone.
What’s come in it’s place? A grimy version that actually feels like a more honest and critical depiction of the world via an untenable combination of curious mermaids and selfish, lusty humans. In this version, we go to the night life of 1980s Warsaw, where everything feels like it sticks unpleasantly to the skin. Our mermaids are carnivorous and, true to their aquatic nature, fishy and slimy, with long, winding eel-like tails. They are alluring but repulsive. All sense of innocent cleanliness is replaced by ignorant, stomach-wrenching danger. These are Homeric creatures of the deep that play with our most deeply buried psychoses. So, if Smoczynska wanted to “kill Disney,” as she said in this interview with The AV Club, she’s certainly landed her punches.
All talk about how The Lure upended my own notion of the classic story of The Little Mermaid (and, in particular, it’s Disney adaptation) aside, the film’s narrative is a relatively faithful rendering of the tale. When it begins, we see a mermaid (named Gold, played by Michalina Olszanska) come to the surface to watch a trio of musicians on the beach. She watches with a kind of innocent admiration. Her sister (named Silver, played by Marta Mazurek) surfaces as well, but her curiosity comes from a different appetite. Together, they sing a song to the humans, asking them to help them come ashore, promising they will not hurt them.
I sat there expecting the first bit of violence, but that wasn’t to come. The mermaids are good to their word. They come ashore where, if they dry out, their fish tales turn to legs, giving them the illusion of humanity unless one looks closer and sees this is all just an illusion. And the musicians, it turns out, work at an adult nightclub. Used to exploiting women to encourage the unsavory appetites of its customers, the nightclub soon recognizes that they can create the best show in town.
Throughout the opening, Gold reveals herself to be enamored with this human crowd. She accepts what they tell her and just seems glad to be there. Silver, on the other hand, will go along with the show, but she makes it clear no one is to touch her. She’s curious, sure, but she doesn’t trust anyone and recognizes they should be her prey. This is all made more difficult when Gold shows she’s falling for the bass player.
And though he feels drawn to her, his general repulsion prevails.
At least at first.
Beyond the basic narrative, The Lure has a lot going for it. The atmosphere — uncomfortable, seedy, thick — is effectively produced and has the right effect, drawing us in while pushing us away. Smoczynska and her director of photography, Kuba Kijowski, do an exceptional job both photographing this atmosphere, but they also use the photography to suggest the uncanny: how the mermaids speak to each other, and, well, how their world clashes in so many ways with 1980s Warsaw. Add to that flashy song and dance numbers under disco lights, and, well, it’s all such a bizarre concoction that one of its strength is making you wonder how (or if) it is all coming together.
And in some ways it didn’t quite come together for me. The song and dance numbers are fun and feel a part of the film in two instances: first, when they occur at the night club, where the song and dance is part of what’s going on in the show; and, second, when the mermaids are seducing the humans to do their will. But the film also has a few that don’t fit well, like when Silver and Gold are shopping and experiencing their new world. Ariel can sing about all of the strange things in the human world while using a fork to comb her hair, but these scenes didn’t do much for me in The Lure. I like the instinct that says let’s go for it! But it didn’t seem to work here.
Another aspect that I wish could have worked better was the pacing and the congruence of the various narratives. I partially blame the out-of-place musical numbers, but some of the flashiness may also be there to fill blank spaces where the subversive elements have played out and we’re then left with the conventional Little Mermaid plot.
Still, all in all, any weaknesses are worth seeing such brazen creativity on display. I’ll take this over an over-thought film where all elements come together perfectly almost any day.