Agnieszka Smoczynska’s The Lure is a cautionary tale of sisterhood, sexuality, and the sometimes self-destructive things people do for love. The film, which won the award for best debut at the Gdynia Film Festival, is also a diabolically wicked Polish-language musical about two beautiful mermaids who climb ashore in Warsaw. One is looking for love; the other, for dinner. The moral here is that men can burn one’s heart and give one heartburn. The setup may borrow much from The Little Mermaid, but Robert Bolesto’s screenplay gives its protagonists far more agency than Hans Christian Andersen and Disney ever did. From its ethereal beginning to its tragic end, The Lure keeps the mermaid sisters, Silver (Marta Mazurek) and Gold (Michalina Olszanska), in full control of their decisions.
“Help us come ashore, no need to fear,” the mermaids sing in the opening scene. “We won’t eat you.” Their lyric is the response to a cabaret band — led by Krysia (Kinga Preis) — whose bass player, Mietek (Jakub Gierszal), entices the leads ashore with his own (far less ominous) song. These daughters of Triton become part of Krysia’s act at an adult nightclub whose clientele likes its entertainment big, boisterous, and bathed in strikingly bold living color. The mermaids have legs on land, but as in Ron Howard’s Splash, they sprout fins when doused with water. So it’s no surprise that their initial performances keep them wet. Their new environment exacts an unexpected price, proving that The Lure has bigger fish to fry than its gimmicky setup would suggest.
The Lure puts to shame any notion that something as bland as La La Land is the future of the movie musical. Much of Smoczynska’s film is sung, and the excellent music and lyrics by Ballady i Romanse propel the story, changing from disco to punk as the film progresses. Most of the numbers are set in the nightclub or at dancing venues, but even a shopping trip becomes an impressively choreographed spectacle of bodies flinging themselves through the store aisles while our heroes try on shoes and accessories. Cinematographer Jakub Kijowski bathes The Lure in a delectably garish hue that recalls the best of Almodóvar; it’s the film’s biggest selling point.
A prominently displayed Saturday Night Fever poster suggests that this is set in the late 1970s, but the timeframe is sketchy. In the mermaids’ club debut, for example, Katarzyna Lewinska’s eclectic costume design evokes John Travolta’s white suit while also paying homage to the flight-attendant chic of the Airotica scene in All That Jazz. Regardless of its era, The Lure has pointed things to say about women’s bodies, hearts, and minds — and society’s perception and perversion of each. It’s no accident that the mermaids have mismatched names and that their human forms have no genitalia, but the film’s messages are cleverly wrapped in Smoczynska’s entertaining, original vision. It’s sexy, fearless, fun, and unrepentantly nasty.
Directed by Agnieszka Smoczynska
Opens February 1, IFC Center