Toronto After Dark Review: The Lure

Mermaids are apparently popular again. Disney is currently remaking their animated hit as an expensive live-action feature, and Stephen Chow’s, The Mermaid ended up being an epic-sized cash-machine of a blockbuster in his native China. But whoa there now, here is a first feature, and one of the most confident film debuts, particularly for a style this tricky, to come along in some time. If you love weird yet meticulous filmmaking that is simultaneously both classic and fresh, then you are going to want to remember the name Agnieszka Smoczynska. Her deeply unorthodox adaptation of the Hans Christian Anderson classic fairy tale, The Little Mermaid, as a Polish period musical he has given the original title C√≥rki Dancingu, literally translated to Daughter of the Dance, for domestic release, but for the rest of the worlds as simply called, The Lure, comes with a wheelbarrow full of superlatives: shocking! sexy! subversive! sublime! entertaining! visionary! And just plain catchy.

Smoczynska takes the classic, literal, fish-out of water tale, and places it in a burlesque club in 1980s Poland. When a family of musicians (whose main gig is to play back-up for the strippers at a night-club) discover two mermaids in the water while drinking and singing on the beach, they bring them aboard as part of their act. Sort of like adopting two new children, and drop them right in to soft-core sex trade. This hardly sounds like it could be the beginning to a mainstream Hollywood film, but trust me, it kind of is. However, I doubt, if it were, there would be the scene where the owner casually examines the ‘tail-vagina’ on the one of the ‘maids and declares, ‘it is fishy, but I like it.’ Nudity and sexual hunger, both casual and intense, are rampant in The Lure, but because of Smoczynska’s acute sense of how to stage-dress, light, and shoot the film like an Blondie video on steroids, these things are not off-putting or controversial, they are part of the films sense of style and sensibility. Somewhere in Iceland, Bjork is going to see this movie, slap her forehead and say, “Shit! How did I never make this movie?!” Furthermore, if in 2016 you still need an argument for more women directors, well, here is another great one to put on the pile.

Michalina Olszanska (a major rising actress in eastern Europe, who for lack of a better explanation is a blend between Juno Temple and Kristen Stewart) and Marta Mazurek (here exquisitely channeling Sissy Spacek) play the pair of mermaids, Golden and Silver. They are, in essence, the aquatic version of twenty-something party girls looking for shits and giggles up for a quick stop in Poland before swimming onward to America. But Silver beings to fall in love with their blonde young band-mate, Mietek. She is strongly warned by her ‘sister,’ as well as another air-touring underwater creature named Triton, who looks like the Kurgan and rocks a riotous punk act in Warsaw. Unsurprisingly, Mermaids and Mermen are obviously great, charismatic singers-of-songs, and The Lure has a seemingly endless capacity for incorporating classic mer-mythology among the drama and the musical numbers. The crisis of the films (after a quick rise to fame) is that if Silver falls in truly in love, but the love is not returned, then she will cease to exist. In an honest, if not particularly wise, sacrificial gesture to earn the love of her bright young thing, she decides to remove her tail and become a human. (Wait for that set piece! It’s a serious OMG bit of genre craft!) The mermaids may want to fall in love human-style, but they are vicious, cunning, and selfish creatures when they want to be. They make no bones about it, and neither does the filmmaking.

The production design in this movie is almost holy in its execution. The film is divided between the singing set-pieces and straight-up narrative, which transition so seamlessly and that it appears effortless to the point of obvious. This is so difficult to do, accomplishing that in and of itself would make this a great film, but there is so much more. The song lyrics, even in subtitled translations, are catchy, example: “Love is vicious / bitter taste can be delicious” The actors, who are often in garish period dress, or performance costumes (not to mention the gargantuan mermaid tails which are the best I’ve ever seen done on camera) are superb, particularly, the groups hive-mother, but not a mermaid, Kinga Preis. She, apparently has worked as a singer with Nick Cave on a couple albums, and is convincing as a gone-to-seed-but-has-still-got-it-DAMMIT Deborah Harry type. Note the gold albums and steel-posters on the wall in her house depicting a younger Pries as a disco-queen.

There are few examples of movies with this daring of style and ambition that come together so perfectly in one packages. The Lure is equal parts classic, cult and curio all rolled into to one toe-tapping fiery blaze of pop filmmaking. See it on the big screen, sneak vodka into the cinema, and give yourself over to the vision of an impressive and certainly upcoming filmmaker on the rise. I’m sure Disney’s film will be fine, and Chow’s film is, without question, entertainingly gonzo, but Agnieszka Smoczynska’s cinematic foray into bare-breasts, fish-tails and siren-songs is abundant with cinematic delights (totally worth crashing the ship onto the rocks for) but moreso, the filmmaking here is pitch perfect.