This film review contains spoilers.
"I wanna be where the people are! I wanna see, wanna see 'em dancing!" Disney princess Ariel proclaims in "Part of Your World," a manifesto in song from America's favorite retelling of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Mermaid." With her big hair, purple seashell bra, and cherished collection of discarded cutlery, Ariel is a 16-year-old, fish-tailed teenybopper desperate to defy her father and stay out late on dry land—a fangirl of the human race.
There is plenty of singing and dancing in The Lure, director Agnieszka Smoczyńska's tantalizing and uncategorizable first feature, which also happens to be a musical update of Andersen's fairy tale that chronicles one mermaid's romance-fueled quest for acceptance into human society. But this is hardly a Disney movie, and its attitude toward humanity isn't quite so complimentary.
In the US, where it premiered in theaters this week, The Lure has become known (to cult cinephiles, at least) as "the Polish cannibal mermaid musical." This isn't an entirely unfair description of a movie that offers so many B-movie pleasures. There's plenty of toplessness, one pretty girl feasts on her lovers, and the musical numbers include a mostly gratuitous Soviet nightclub performance of Donna Summer's "I Feel Love" that could've come straight out of a Pedro Almodóvar comedy.
Beneath the flesh and glitz and gore, though, The Lure is a film about outsiders making their way through a strange, new world. It works as a dual allegory for the painful process of growing up female and for the plight of immigrants and refugees. "The transformation [from mermaid to human woman] in Andersen was for children," Smoczyńska tells me, in an interview at the New York offices of the film's distributor, Janus. "We wanted to make a fairy tale for adults." Even a playful dance number about shopping becomes a sly critique of consumerist beauty standards, as characters frolic through malls and public plazas, belting out lyrics like, "The city will tell us what it is we lack." (The words surely sound more elegant in the original Polish).
The heroines of this dark, 80s-set fantasy are two mermaid sisters, Silver (Marta Mazurek) and Golden (Michalina Olszanska), with ambitions of swimming to America. At a nighttime beach party, their beautiful faces and siren songs entrance the young bass player (Jakub Gierszał) in a family dancehall band. He invites the girls ashore, gets them jobs as stripping singers at the slightly unsavory joint where he works, welcomes them into his clan's shabby apartment, and quickly wins Silver's undying love.
The only obstacle to their romance is his unwillingness to consummate it or commit because he doesn't see her as fully human. Silver and Golden's slimy fish tails morph into convincing pairs of legs when they dry off, but the transformation also leaves them "as smooth as Barbie dolls," in one crass character's words, where their vaginas are supposed to be. The only way the bass player can have sex with Silver is through the same orifice in her tail that other men, who see the girls as a sexy freak show, freely shove their fingers inside. "To me," he tells her, "you'll always be a fish—an animal."
"The mermaids are like immigrants because they are from the outside, and they come to our world," says Smoczyńska. "They are treated as animals." She points out that the difference between her movie and the real world is that in the real world, "you have [actual] human beings who you don't treat as human beings."
The bass player's rejection sends Silver on an obsessive quest to become fully human, even though that means literally having her tail chopped off. In a nightmarish operation sequence that Smoczyńska calls The Lure's most important scene, blood spurts up at the camera as a giant saw slices Silver in two. Her tail is crudely replaced with the bottom half of a "real," mature woman's body, leaving a gruesome scar across her stomach. After the procedure, Silver offers her new, human form to the bass player before she's fully healed, and their love scene is interrupted by another bloody eruption. These are some of the most visceral renderings of menarche and virginity loss ever committed to film, using body horror to drive home the universal traumas of female adolescence.
"It's a visualization of the initiation [into womanhood]," Smoczyńska confirms. "Growing up is brutal, especially as a girl. It's like death. You can treat the whole story as a metaphor for growing up. On the physical side, you have this mucus, you have this blood, you have this fish tail. [The tail is] something you want to hide, but it's something that defines your youth. When you want to be loved by a boy—or by a human being—you lose yourself. You cut off your fish tail." Before they thought to bring in elements of "The Little Mermaid," she and screenwriter Robert Bolesto envisioned The Lure as a coming-of-age tale based partially on the real lives of sisters Zuzanna and Barbara Wroński, who composed the film's deceptively buoyant original songs and grew up in the nightclubs where their musician parents performed.
If Silver is this story's X-rated Ariel, Golden is a character who owes more to the female vampire archetype than to Disney or Andersen. (In fact, The Lure's heroines bear a closer resemblance to vampires than cannibals, not only because they drink blood, but because you can't cannibalize a different species.) "Silver, the older one, is much more sensitive. She wants to be a human being," Smoczyńska explains. "Golden is the opposite—she wants to be a predator, and she wants to be who she [already] is." A wild girl who would never sacrifice her freedom to win the love of a human man, she is also a proud outsider with no intention of assimilating.
As Silver chases the man she loves, Golden defies their human hosts' fickle hospitality by preying on the men and women who fetishize her exotic body. Despite her violent behavior, she's the shrewder and more grounded sister, never wavering from the pair's original aim of reaching the United States. She warns Silver of a legend: When a mermaid loses her tail, her voice goes with it. This isn't just a metaphor for identity or self-expression; in a very practical sense, the girls' voices are their meal ticket. As their spookily charismatic performances begin to win over audiences, they're elevated from backup singers to rock 'n' roll frontwomen. Their fame could help them traverse borders.
Unfortunately, though, the legend turns out to be true. Those who only know Disney's lobotomized Little Mermaid may not realize that Andersen's fairy tale has a bittersweet ending. Instead of defeating a sea witch who looks suspiciously like Divine and living happily ever after with her man, the original story's nameless heroine watches helplessly as the prince marries her diabolical rival. Forced to choose between killing him before sunrise the next day, so she can return to the ocean and live a full life underwater, and evaporating into seafoam, she resigns herself to annihilation. But when she dies, her genuine love for the prince transforms her into a spirit and affords her the opportunity to win back the soul she sold to the sea witch.
Smoczyńska's ending is nearly identical to Andersen's, as the bass player suddenly marries a woman who was never half-fish and doesn't spray him with blood when he tries to fuck her. Except that instead of liberating Silver from any witch's damnation (The Lure is mercifully light on female rivalries and religious subtext), her death frees up Golden to kill the man who reduced her sweet sister to a stream of bubbles. Then, Golden jumps into the sea and swims away. Although it takes place almost entirely on land, the film begins and ends with generous shots from the mermaids' underwater point of view; the implication is that we humans are getting just a few glimpses of how different the world looks through their eyes.
You can choose to interpret Golden's fate as a feminist triumph. She not only avenges Silver's death, but escapes with her girlish wildness and independence intact. Like Goofus and Gallant, one sister ruins her own life with bad choices while the other saves herself through prudent planning. But that's a shallow way of reading a film whose delightfully schlocky, slightly cluttered surface belies its moral complexity. Golden's is a pyrrhic victory. She may have gotten away, but she's lost the only person who she genuinely loves. Her life will, at best, be a solitary one.
Despite its comic and musical moments, Smoczyńska sees The Lure as a tragedy in the classic, Greek sense, with characters who are doomed from the very beginning: "They can make a choice," she says, "but [the outcome] can never be good." Silver decides to become the model immigrant, sacrificing her autonomy, identity, and livelihood to gain acceptance in this new world. But even that isn't enough to make the bass player treat her like a real human being. For Smoczyńska, the parallel to real immigrants' lives is clear: "If you assimilate, you can lose yourself, and it will be very destructive to you."
Like her sister, Golden begins the film as an immigrant, but the choice she makes is to avoid exploitation by any means necessary. She survives, but ends up a fugitive and a refugee, forced to answer the thoughtless violence of humans by killing one, a final attack of her own. Maybe, after a dozen more ordeals like the one she's just survived, she'll make it to America. Maybe she'll even get a warmer welcome there than she got in the USSR. (This is the 80s, after all, not 2017.) But for the time being, like the millions of Syrian refugees now barred from entering our country, she isn't free—she's stateless.