Park City, Utah, is a deeply strange place. Whether it's the altitude, the snowy, craggy landscape, or the movie deals being made in hotel lobbies, Sundance seems designed to throw you off. It is a beautiful, discombobulating nightmare, which is why it's the perfect place for director Agnieszka Smoczyńska's The Lure. The Polish director's debut feature-length film is like Cronenberg at Disneyland, a Grand Guignol musical fairy tale of two mermaid sisters who are quite literally fish out of water.
We first meet Golden and Silver as they are trying to lure a family of musicians to a watery death, only to strike a deal with them that leads to the mermaids joining their band. The Figs and Dates perform in a weird 80s-style dance club in Warsaw, where Golden and Silver shimmy on human legs and use their siren songs to bring in big business.
But who's luring whom? Beautiful, naïve Silver (Marta Mazurek) falls for the shaggy-haired bassist, who is happy to enjoy Silver's attention but tells her as long as she has a tail, she'll always be a fish to him. Golden, her raven-haired sister played by Michalina Olszanska, isn't interested in giving up her life aquatic for any dude.
The Lure's Polish premiere divided viewers whereas Smoczyńska found the Sundance audience much friendlier. (By the time the festival wrapped, Smoczyńska and her crew took home the Sundance award for the World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award for Unique Vision and Design, though the film still has not found US distribution.) "There were people who really [loved] it and people who really hated it. Here I can only see the people who love it or the people who [think], it's OK,'" she told me. "In Poland, they're like, 'Fuck! What is this shit?'"
Granted, a fantastical horror movie with musical numbers can be a hard sell to some audiences, especially given some of the imagery Smoczyńska and painter Aleksandra Waliszewska have cooked up. One scene in particular shows Golden and Silver completely naked, with the band leader, played by Andrzej Konopka, showing the club owner the peculiarities of their human forms—the sisters turn around to show their egg-smooth behinds and sit with their legs spread to show a shocking lack of genitals.
"We wanted them to be like angels, like another species," Smoczyńska said, adding that in the film, "The mermaid is a metaphor for growing up as a girl, and what's very important for the young girl is losing your virginity. The pussy is a metaphor in a way—when you are without it, you are not as valuable." The musician's offhand dismissal of Silver's womanhood (and by extension, her worth) spurs her desire to lose her essential nature, to trade her tail and her voice for a vulva.
"When you're becoming mature, you can lose yourself, like our Silver, or you can build yourself. And because she wants so much to have genitals, the pussy, to be a woman, a mature woman because she wants to be with a man, you know—she thinks this is the most important value, and she lost herself because she loses her own nature."
Golden and Silver are leagues away from Ariel and her chaste clamshell bra. When they're in their original forms, they're topless, with their long locks just barely brushing their nipples. Silver especially seems like a shy teenager who's aware of the power of her body but also not quite comfortable with it just yet, a feeling that left some audience members unsettled. The stars were both 24 at the time of filming, "But they looked like teenagers, and I really wanted the audience to feel uncomfortable," Smoczyńska said.
Additionally, she told me she wanted each sister to look like "a wild predator. A wild animal," with grotesque tails "full of mucous, full of slime—half woman and half monster." (A splash of water or dip in the tub releases Golden and Silver from their human forms.) Part of their initial display includes the revelation of a vaginal slit in each tail, which the band leader fingers. Complaints about the fishy smell permeating the club echo society's lesson that the female body is disgusting and unclean, but it's that sort of erotic disgust that The Lure leans in to.
Aside from Hans Christian Andersen, Tim Burton, Vera Chytilová's Daisies, Björk, Fever Ray, and Bob Fosse, Smoczyńska's influences include her own life. She used her mother's restaurant as inspiration for the Warsaw club in which the sisters perform. Under Communist rule, she said, the outside world was "very dark and sad and gloomy," but inside clubs like her mother's, there were dancers, musicians, performers, and "plenty of vodka." The end result was a set design that was "full of sensuality, full of sexual intention between people," but also evocative of Golden and Silver's watery world, complete with almost subsonic susurrations and chittering.
The Lure is also an awful lot of fun, from the sexy musical numbers to the sight of Silver trying out her new legs on a treadmill. Ultimately, The Lure is a love triangle: Silver's betrayal of her true nature is also a betrayal of her sister, Golden, and their dreams together.
For Silver, "her tail, and therefore her mermaid nature, could be her strength but she doesn't know how to access it," Smoczyńska said. "And that's her tragedy. Like every woman she needs to discover her true nature. It can be painful, but she cannot be ashamed of it. Even if it costs everything."
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