Fantasia Fest: Beware THE LURE’s Disco Mermaids

They're man-eaters.

Remember the name Agnieszka Smoczynska. For non-Polish speakers, that might be difficult, but in this case, it’s worth the effort to memorise all those consonants. Her debut feature displays directorial chops that many filmmakers with a dozen titles behind them should envy. Its story is slight, its themes obscure - but boy, it’s a fun and eye-openingly original ride, gleefully leaping from genre to genre with nimble grace.

The Lure tells the story of a pair of mermaids - Silver and Golden - as they come onto land to feed and get swept up in the backstage goings-on of an adult-entertainment disco nightclub. Their playful energy and sexuality prove a hit for the struggling establishment, and they quickly get on the inside with the staff. But therein lies the rub: as the naive Silver falls in love with the house band’s bassist, she also refuses to heed Golden’s warning: if she falls in love and he marries someone else, she’ll have to eat him, lest she turn into sea foam at daybreak.

From there, it’s fairly obvious where the story’s going to go. The story’s super light, as befits a fairytale, but as a result, the central romance doesn’t ring true. There’s just no chemistry between Silver and her love, making it hard to emotionally engage with her plight. An audience cheer at a late-film horror moment clearly intended to be tragic really drives the point home: the story needs more weight than it actually gets. Without any serious exploration of the human-mermaid relationship, the romance blooms merely because the plot requires it to.

But although she’s unable to fully elevate the story, Smoczynska’s direction makes The Lure one of the visual highlights of the year.

One of the reasons Smoczynska made The Lure was because she hadn’t seen many horror musicals out there. It’s true, there aren’t many, and there are fewer good ones. But the musical numbers lend the film an infectious, sexy energy inextricable from from the infectious sexiness of disco itself. There are musical numbers here that, through a combination of groovy songwriting, energetic filmmaking, and magnetic performances, absolutely captivate the audience. Musical numbers are festooned with fairy lights; odd side characters fill out the nightclub; everything’s shot with slick, confident style. In the second half of the film, that pacey fun gives way to a slower (probably too slow) sense of moroseness, which fits the story's requirements but feels like a drag after such a buoyant opening.

Marta Mazurek and Michalina Olszanska as Silver and Golden deliver curious performances, their unusual sexuality driving other characters and giving us a glimpse into the psychology of Smoczynska’s take on mermaids. These mermaids can take human form when they go on land - albeit without any genitals - only reverting to their eel-like mermaid selves when they get wet. They both need to feed on blood, but only Golden predates upon the nightclub patrons, her face permanently fixed in a wry, hungry grin. Wide-eyed Silver, on the other hand, lacks the cynicism of Golden, allowing herself to fall in love despite all warnings to the contrary. The relationship between the two mermaids is fascinating but thinly-drawn, a tantalising glimpse at a film that very nearly was.

The decisions Silver makes along her romantic path reveal a lackadaisical approach to world-building. People in the world of The Lure seem remarkably open to the idea of mermaids. They’re surprised to see them, sure - but the film’s fairytale simplicity has them rapidly grow accustomed to their presence. More mythological creatures are implied to exist in this world, as well - they’re just never made into a big deal. In any other movie, a mid-film surgery sequence replacing a mermaid tail with legs would have been a highly specific, gruesome affair; here, it’s a charmingly simple procedure. Why worry about the specifics when they don’t matter?

That surgery fleshes out a metaphor born in The Little Mermaid, but pushes it to a more obvious, literal place. In both stories, mermaids lose their voices when they gain (permanent) legs, but rather than leaning on magic, The Lure has Silver's tail hacked off and replaced with the lower half of a corpse. That lower half includes, importantly, the human vagina that mermaids lack - although Silver and Golden have sexual openings of a sort on their fishy tails, they're incapable of making love with humans. In The Lure, the acquisition of sexual agency requires surrendering one's ability to speak. Coming from a female director, that's a powerful statement - one that continues to develop as the film slowly moves towards its conclusion.

Despite the party atmosphere in its opening sequences, The Lure eventually becomes more melancholy than its wild logline would suggest. Touching on ideas of doomed romance, impromptu families, and the circle of life, it’s not clear what the film’s saying, but it evokes enough scattershot feelings that it may not matter. Ultimately, The Lure falls into classic fairytale traps, but although its emotions are telegraphed and forced, they’re expressed with vivid passion. If that’s enough for you - and you’ve a hankering for a disco mermaid horror musical - The Lure is absolutely your jam.