Background: Just two years after its Polish premiere, Agnieszka Smoczyńska’s feminist fairy tale musical The Lure (Spine #896) explodes onto Blu-ray. This is Smoczyńska’s first film in the Collection as well as the seventh Polish film overall to be inducted.
Story: In a bold re-imagining of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, two young mermaids named Golden and Silver (Michalina Olszańska, Marta Mazurek) are discovered by a strip club rock band on the shores of Poland. They are quickly pressed into performing at their club where Golden secretly seduces, kills, and devours male patrons. However, Silver falls in love with Mietek (Jakub Gierszał), the band’s handsome but thoughtless bass player. Desperate to become a “real girl,” Silver has her tail surgically removed and replaced with a real woman’s body. However, Mietek immediately falls in love with another woman, marrying her and dooming the now mute Silver to transform into sea foam. Grief-stricken, Golden takes revenge on the feckless man her sister doomed herself for.
The Film: Smoczyńska’s The Lure honestly sounds like a film made via Mad Libs. A 1980s throwback musical about adolescent cannibal mermaids. It seems less like a real movie than a parody of one you’d expect to see on old episodes of The Critic. But don’t be too quick to dismiss it. Beneath its madcap genre mixing is a fiendishly clever purpose: the re-appropriation of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale The Little Mermaid for feminist audiences. Forget the squeaky clean Disney adaptation; Andersen’s original story follows a young mermaid who gives up her tail and voice for a thankless, unworthy prince who rejects her love. The mermaid—who has no immortal soul—is punished for loving a human by being turned into ocean foam and forced to perform good deeds for mankind for 300 years into order to go to heaven.
Smoczyńska turns the story into a poignant, tragic metaphor for female puberty and sexual exploitation. It’s no surprise that as soon as the mermaids emerge from the sea they’re swept up and forced to perform in a strip club by a seedy manager who examines their genitalia in a grotesque re-envisioning of the casting couch. Their dancing striptease is less odd than it sounds, as Golden and Silver’s tails transform into legs when they dry up. However, in this form they have neither vaginas or anuses, making any kind of intercourse impossible. More’s the pity for Silver who becomes smitten with Mietek who cruelly casts her aside saying that he’ll never be able to see her as anything other than an animal. Golden watches Silver’s infatuation with worried disgust, having no scruples in devouring predatory men. Indeed, it is Golden, the sister who embraces her power over the other gender, who ultimately survives and flourishes.
But all this makes the film sound like a dry intellectual exercise, which it certainly is not. It’s a lively musical jam-packed with 80s dance-floor tunes, show-stopping ballads, and even a garish Busby Berkeley-esque number complete with a small army of choreographed, brightly dressed extras. Making the film a musical was a masterstroke, as musicals exist within their own universes with their own unique laws of logic. Because of this, we can accept the idea that the world within the film doesn’t get turned upside-down by the sudden appearance of literal mythological creatures. There are no news reports, no prying scientists, no mass hysteria. If there were, it would have derailed the narrative and Smoczyńska’s central metaphor for the mermaids as pubescent girls savaged by a misogynist world. This plastic reality is the perfect environment for a film which, if stripped of its music, could double as an effective horror film, as Smoczyńska chose to predominately use practical effects for the mermaids. Their tales are as lovingly realized as any effect from a Guillermo Del Toro film: seven-foot-long appendages operated with pedals. In any other setting than a musical or a horror film, these would have been the height of kitsch.
The Supplements: Unlike many of Criterion’s releases of contemporary films, this one boasts a number of special features: a documentary about the film’s production, deleted scenes, and two of Smoczyńska’s early short films. They are all welcome additions.
Overall: The Lure is an unexpected choice for the main Collection. Usually when they induct genre films, they’re either by established directors like Del Toro, Alfred Hitchcock, or Jacques Demy or they’ve managed to gain considerable notoriety as cult classics—think Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls (Spine #63), Jack Woods’ Equinox (Spine #338), and Alex Cox’s Repo Man (Spine #654). But with The Lure, we have the debut feature film of a female director that won only mixed reviews by critics upon its initial release. Personally, I support its inclusion. The Collection has always come up short in its selection of films by women directors, and this willingness to go to bat for a largely unknown film by a largely unknown filmmaker bodes well for the company’s future direction. It may not be essential viewing, but it’s definitely worth the cover price. Recommended.
Film Grade: B+
Criterion Grade: B+