In the Polish musical The Lure, Golden (Michalina Olszanska) and Silver (Marta Mazurek) turn up at a strip club as if driven by the happenstance of crustaceans washing up on a beach. They’re wet, confused, and homeless. And as the club’s owner (Zygmunt Malanowicz) evaluates their performing potential, one soon realizes that much more links the sisters to the aforementioned sea creatures. Golden and Silver are mermaids, which means they have no sexual orifices apart from a small slit at the end of the fish tail that each of them grows whenever they’re splashed with water. Which is all the club staff needs to see for the girls to be promptly hired to take part in a freakish cabaret act with a big bowl of water at its center. But little does the staff know that, in addition to being able to grow fish tails, the girls can communicate telepathically and share a fondness for eating human flesh.
Director Agnieszka Smoczynska concocts a refreshingly leftfield cinematic world that echoes the parallel universes of Yorgos Lanthimos’s films. Unlike Lanthimos, though, Smoczynska more eagerly embraces the light-hearted nonsense of her cine-experiment, and without straining for metaphorical import. The Lure isn’t just a luscious sci-fi mindfuck, but a musical unafraid of its own ridiculousness, with knowingly cheesy lyrics and dance numbers.
As the mermaids sing on stage atop their fish bowl and their tails erect themselves for excited male patrons, it’s hard not to think of the film as some kind of (trans-)gender allegory. Are Silver and Golden not, ultimately, chicks with organically tuckable dicks? Instead of penetrable orifices, the women on erotic display grow a massively phallic body part so rigid that it anchors them into place, perhaps assuaging castration anxieties. And as much as Smoczynska tries to remind us, with gory plot twists and silly choreographies, that she’s interested in amusement for amusement’s sake, The Lure lends itself to all sorts of cerebral, if not political, considerations. It’s hard not to think of Silver and Golden’s mermaid-ness as a psychosomatic response to Poland’s gender-based oppressions. It’s as if their escape can only be imagined if they morph into a barely-human body—even if, ultimately, their transformation only heightens their status as voice-less sex toys.
For all its overtly precise narrative around the ambivalent relationship between siblings (love and rivalry), The Lure is most poignant when it simply stares at its own strangeness. Take the image of a naked Golden sitting on top of a dresser smoking a cigarette. She simply sits there, like one of visual artist Hans Bellmer’s disjointed vagina-less dolls, in super-human confusion, slightly backlit and taking a drag on her cigarette. In one cinematic swoop, she’s suddenly, and simultaneously, the awkward teen girl in Carrie, the uncatalogable organism of Splice, Scarlett Johansson’s identifiably human alien from Under the Skin, and the Eastern European woman who turned into a wild feline in Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People. It’s an eerie, albeit brief, moment whose purpose is to, instead of move the storyline forward, make this merwoman available for us to identify with—not for the deep-seated part of her that’s truly human, but for the one that isn’t.
The moments of high-contrast lighting keep sharp separation between brightness and darkness, and the frequent aquatic blues and greens are rendered with sharp detail and careful attention to appropriate color saturation. Inside the nightclub, this transfer handles the palette with precision, so that nearly a dozen different shades of neon can be distinguished in any given frame. The sound mix is equally strong and impressive, whether the merwomen are belting out numbers, dancing through the streets of Warsaw, or chomping on someone's neck. The songs are mixed for maximal impact, which means that your speakers won't have felt this thoroughly tested by a contemporary musical since Magic Mike XXL.
As is becoming standard with the Criterion Collection's releases of recent films making their debut on home video, the assortment of supplements is adequate, if slightly underwhelming. The crown jewel of the lot is a 40-minute making-of featurette that chronicles the film's entire journey from pre-production to release. Led by Agnieszka Smoczynska's insights, the first 20 minutes are especially engaging, as the consequences of the film's setting, which is meant to evoke 1980's communist Poland, is weighed against the melding of musical and horror into a singularly strange brew. For Smoczynska, who came of age inside the confines of a nightclub where her parents worked, the film's autobiographical dimension was eventually phased out by the specificity of Robert Bolesto's screenplay and sisters Barbara and Zuzanna Wrońskie's music. The pair of short films written and directed by Smoczynska—2007's Aria Diva and 2010's Viva Maria!—provide evidence of the groundwork for The Lure's deft play with genre, feminine seduction, and music. Rounding out the extras are a handful of deleted scenes, a trailer, and an essay by novelist, playwright, and storyteller Angela Lovell.
Criterion presents a contemporary treasure on Blu-ray that's likely to endure with future audiences as a staple of European cult cinema.