A seductive siren song, a scream, and a segue into an enchanting storybook-style credit sequence... The opening few minutes of Agnieszka Smoczyńska’s Córki Dancingu (The Lure) do a pretty good job of indicating, in microcosm, the mix of genres that make the movie such a crazy, confounding and supremely enjoyable ride. “Two mermaids walk into a Warsaw nightclub…” might sound like the opening to a dirty joke, but in fact it’s a pretty fair summary of the basic premise of this movie, which won the Best Directing Debut and Best Make-Up prizes at this year’s Gdynia Film Festival, where it was a wild card addition to the Main Competition. (You can read my full coverage of the 2015 Festival here.)
An ingenious mash-up of various genre tropes, Smoczyńska’s film combines dreamy beauty, broad humour, gaudy musical interludes and gory body horror to offer a fresh variant on the Hans Christian Andersen story that ends up pretty far from Disney territory. Think Cronenberg and Luhrmann collaborating on a Splash remake and you’re a little bit closer to grasping the movie’s singular appeal.
Emerging from their watery lair, our mermaid heroines (the absolutely terrific duo of Marta Mazurek and Michalina Olszańska) find themselves taken in by the proprietors of a nightclub ("with a license for adult entertainment") in the Polish capital. Here – as "Silver" and "Golden" - they soon end up appearing as one of the club’s acts. “I’m so proud of you girls, my pretty ones,” coos the bewigged chanteuse Krysia (the reliably brilliant Kinga Preis, never more cherishable than when crooning “I Feel Love” here), as Silver and Golden become a hit at the club. However, it’s not long before the contrasting responses of the pair to their new environment start to lead to problems, as the mermaids’ presence sees a host of violent and erotic tensions getting unleashed.
Creatively choreographed and designed, The Lure offers considerable visual pleasure, and the movie’s subversiveness goes beyond its inventive genre-mixing. It’s also evident in the picture’s take on '80s Warsaw: here not the grey, grim, oppressive location of cliché but rather rethought as a space for pleasure, fantasy and fulfillment. “The city will tell us/What it is we lack”, sing our heroines, during the most ambitiously staged musical sequence, which takes place during – yes – a shopping spree. Yet the darker side of the metropolis is not overlooked, either, and the movie isn’t afraid of getting into some pretty disturbing territory as it progresses.
Like Grzegorz Jankowski’s gleefully scuzzy rock band comedy Polish Shit (Polskie Gówno), which was a highlight of Gdynia 2014, The Lure also stands as another example of current Polish creativity in the musical genre, clearly drawing on a specific national context yet universal enough to resonate much more widely. The vibrant score, composed by sister duo Barbara and Zuzanna Wrońska (Ballady i Romanse), testifies to that inclusivity, encompassing joyful pop, disco, tender ballads and punk, in a way that does justice to the movie’s shifts in mood.
Perhaps inevitably for a film that tries out so much, The Lure falters at times, and a number of viewers at Gdynia professed to finding the film’s tonal shifts jarring. But “unevenness” is part of the wildness of the ride here, and I for one was impressed by the way in which the movie keeps up pace, moving out of its diverse modes with swiftness, and intelligently adapting the Andersen material with a shrewd and witty eye on contemporary gender politics – including a biting feminist twist.
In her otherwise positive review of Splash, Pauline Kael wrote that Howard's film is "frequently on the verge of being more wonderful than it is – more poetic, a little wilder". I’m happy to report that The Lure lacks for neither poetry nor wildness. The movie is out on Christmas Day in Poland, and I sincerely hope that it’s distributed elsewhere too, since there’s potential for the making of a true cult classic here.