WARNING -- MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD
Anyone who follows me on Letterboxd, where I post frequent reviews of films I've seen, knows that I rail against unoriginal, or cliched films, quite often. It's a problem filmmakers have always had (especially in Hollywood), but it seems to have become especially prevalent nowadays as we have seen a rise in superhero films, franchise building, and novel adaptations. Occasionally we will see an original film become surprisingly successful at the box office (It Comes At Night is an excellent example of this, as it made 260% of its budget in revenue), but for the most part there is a set routine genres and stories that are produced, and released, in the film industry.
The independent scene is flourishing, though, as more people are flocking to film festivals to see what is available. Netflix and Amazon Prime are changing the game, too, by funding a variety of projects, and giving newer filmmakers a platform with which to release their film (Amazon does a full theater release, while Netflix makes it available to their subscribers).
It's also important to mention the old adage, "Every story has already been told", essentially meaning that were are currently just repurposing older stories, updating them, and releasing them to audiences again.
To some extent I can understand this adage, as we do tell a lot of the same stories in different ways, especially in certain genres (there are only so many ways you can tell a love story, or a war story, etc.), but there is room within the confines of those stories to create something interesting and original. Just because someone has said certain words before doesn't mean you can't rearrange them to mean something else.
That's essentially what The Lure does. This Polish musical, soon to be available for purchase from The Criterion Collection, is based on Hans Christian Andersen's famous fairy tale, "The Little Mermaid". However, while it stays faithful to its source material in certain narrative aspects, The Lure is not interested in re-telling the story Andersen wrote in 1837. Instead, writer Robert Bolesto and director Agnieszka Smocynska found a way to explore themes of loneliness, isolation, and sexuality in a modern day setting, using the idea of mermaids as a stepping-off point.
The Lure is wholly original right from the get-go. It is a musical, albeit a very dark one, about two mermaid sisters -- Silver and Golden -- who are adopted into a cabaret, and perform at a rather sleazy night club. Silver falls in love with a handsome bassist, and Golden begins to hunt, and eat, humans during the night.
The entire film has this ethereal, dreamlike quality to it. It's almost surreal. Part of that is due to the fact that the majority of the first two acts take place in the aforementioned nightclub, where we see Silver, Golden, and the rest of the cabernet performing highly sexual pop songs while being bathed in laser shows, highly saturated colors, and wildly flamboyant clothing.
In one of our opening scenes, before Silver and Golden are told they will perform in the cabernet, we see the club owner walking through his establishment. Tracking him in a shot that looks as though it was taken directly out of Scorsese's Goodfellas, we see him pass cooks, servers, and other employees who are all dancing to the beat of the song playing while doing their daily work. It's an odd introduction to many of the characters we see, and to the club itself, and yet it somehow fits the atmosphere in retrospect. It throws you off, keeps you off balance, and prepares you for the oddities that are to come.
The element of the mermaids is handled in a very interesting way, as well. In a scene following the one above, the night club owner discovers Silver and Golden hiding in a locked room. He is told that they are mermaids rather matter-of-factly, with one of his employees pouring a glass of water on them. Doing so transforms their legs (which look mostly human, except for a few obvious discrepancies) into mermaid tails. The night club owner, who we expect to be horrified, or at least surprised, takes it in stride, and says they will perform at the club. Then, a few scenes later, we see the sisters perform; their song ends with them posing in a giant bowl of water, their mermaid tails on display for everyone to see -- and the crowd roars with applause.
In other words, the mermaids are handled very similarly to the way Gabriel García Márquez handles the old man in his short story "A Very old Man With Enormous Wings". In some respect, this is just a part of magical realism, where a grounded, realistic story is infiltrated by one fantastical element, which is not treated as fantastical within the context of the narrative. Everyone takes these mermaids in stride.
And yet, this leads to the most interesting theme of the film -- identity. These mermaids are considered a part of their community (insofar as a sleazy night club can be considered a community), so much so that Silver falls in love, and engages in a sexual relationship with the cabernet's bassist, Mietek. However, before their relationship commences, Mietek says something along the lines of "I'll always see you as a fish".
Granted, he gets over this very quickly (quickly as in literally a minute later), but this is the beginning of this theme of isolation and loneliness that is so essential to understanding our characters.
Because while the community embraces the mermaids as performers, they don't interact with them in any meaningful way. The mermaids are viewed as objects -- on the stage (where they sing and strip for their audience), and sexually, as all of Golden's murderous nights out begin with her engaging with a man sexually. They are not given personhood, or individuality by this community. In fact, in one of the film's most heartbreaking scenes, Silver has her tail cut off and replaced with a human woman's bottom half. She does this so she and Mietek can finally be a couple, and be normal. Doing this gives her a disturbingly large, and horrifying scar, complete with large, black stitches, across her midsection, and she is forced to walk on crutches while she regains her strength. She gives up every part of her identity, of her individuality, even her connection with Golden, just so she can be with Mietek, and he ends up falling in love, and marrying a human woman. Meanwhile, all throughout the film, Golden is telling Silver that she can't fall in love with Mietek -- that if he leaves her, and falls in love with someone else, that she will turn into sea foam unless she eats him. Silver ignores this warning from her sister, and it ends up being the mistake that costs her her life at the end of the film.
These themes are perfectly encapsulated in the poster for the film, and the marketing stills that are associated with the project. They mainly involve Silver in a dingy bathtub, her impossibly large tail sticking out of it. It's such a simple image, and yet it's extremely powerful -- this beacon of beauty -- a mermaid -- is living in an impossibly small bathtub in a dirty, grimy bathroom, completely alone.
So does The Lure succeed in exploring many of its themes?
Yes, and no. The Lure is more interested in its surreal imagery, its magical realism, and the actions of its mermaids than it is in the narrative themes it presents. The love story between Silver and Mietek isn't entirely fleshed out -- when it works it is incredible, and there are plenty of scenes of raw beauty and sadness that make the pairing seem real in a lot of ways, but often we only see glimpses of them together which all amount to the same ending, or the same implication.
However, with that said, Smocynska's direction is incredibly taut, beautiful, and memorable. The cinematography in this film is astounding, and the usage of color and sound add an intriguing, and important layer to the film. At 92 minutes, The Lure doesn't mess around -- it hits you hard and fast with its imagery, and with its narrative (though perhaps too quickly for the latter). The benefit of this, though, is that the film doesn't feel bloated, nor does the pacing feel too slow. The story is told swiftly, and with precision, and that kept my interest throughout the entire runtime.
All in all, The Lure is one of the most original films I have ever seen. It explores very familiar themes of loneliness, isolation, beauty, love, and the male gaze (especially that last one) in fresh, new ways, and the musical aspect adds an intriguing layer to the narrative itself.
Don't get me wrong -- this film is not all fun, games, and sex. It is dark. There are plenty of moments of brutal violence, of heartbreaking pathos, and of grim horror. However, in-between those are some truly beautiful moments which help propel the film's quality upwards.
I highly recommend The Lure to anyone interested in Polish cinema, magical realism, dark fantasy tales, and/or bloody musicals.
MY RATING: ★★★★★★★☆☆☆
Runtime: 92 minutes | Unrated