‘The Lure’: Sundance Review

The Lure still 1 - H 2016
Courtesy of Sundance Institute

The Lure

Enticing, but not entirely satisfying.

Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Smoczynska’s exuberant feature is a fanciful mermaid fable set in a Warsaw nightclub.

Like some contemporary fairytale for grownups, The Lure is a genre hybrid that melds melodrama, horror, fantasy and musical elements into a singular coming-of-age tale. Featuring a couple of mermaid sisters who take human form to experience what the terrestrial world has to offer, Agnieszka Smoczynska’s fearless debut feature is the sort of exotic siren call that festival and art house audiences are most likely to heed.

Both the script and the visual style of The Lure are inspired by a curious relic of Communist popular culture dating from the 1980s, when Western-style dancehall restaurants featuring live music, theatrical lighting and glamorous stage acts covering Western pop hits were all the rage in Warsaw. These venues, known as “dancings” in Polish, vanished once the country made the transition to a market economy, although pop-culture aficionados like Smoczynska, who was only a child at the time, still fondly recall that vanished era. Her affectionate tribute is more allegorical than literal, however, neglecting to even give most characters individual names of their own.

The Polish title of the film translates as “The Daughters of the Dancing,” two women that screenwriter Robert Bolesto interprets as a pair of mermaid sisters named Silver (Marta Mazurek) and Golden (Michalina Olszanska). The pair emerge from their watery habitat and take human form as attractive young women after Silver hears a Bass Player (Jakub Gierszal) from a family of musicians singing onshore and falls hopelessly in love with him, even though they would normally only consider humans as a food source. Silver and Golden track him to a nearby Warsaw strip club, where the Boss (Zygmunt Malanowicz) hires them as a novelty act after discovering their natural singing and transformational abilities. Following a nightly set by the family’s Vocalist mom (Kinga Preis), they perform songs in topless mermaid form, reclining in an oversized champagne glass full of water and backed by the Bass Player and his Drummer (Andrzej Konopka) dad for an act the Boss christens “The Lure.”

The family’s cramped apartment becomes even more crowded when Silver and Golden move in, but despite the close quarters the Bass Player initially doesn’t take much notice that Silver clearly has a crush on him. Prolonged periods in human form are stressful for the sisters and Golden soon returns to preying on random humans, although Silver restrains herself, hopeful that the Bass Player will take notice of her. When they finally do consummate their relationship while Silver is in mermaid mode, she doesn’t feel that the Bass Player is serious enough about her. So she begins developing a drastic strategy to make him fall in love with her, spurning the plan she’s made with her sister to swim to the U.S. and start a new life there.

Just as the strangeness of Bolesto’s narrative begins to take on a relatable form, the film morphs into a musical, as the sisters perform a half-dozen numbers, the first in a shopping mall surrounded by legions of dancing extras. Whether these musical interludes are entirely integral to the plot or not, they add another layer of fantasy and complexity to an already ambitious feature.

Indeed, the unrestrained exuberance of The Lure often substitutes stylistic flourishes for a sometimes confounding lack of coherence, which is perhaps attributable to a youthful perspective on hazily remembered bygone days that vanished with the fall of Communism. Candy-colored nightclub lighting, soaring camera shots and graceful underwater sequences all boost the fantasy quotient, but don’t contribute greatly to an understanding of the characters, although the SFX are impressive throughout.

The castmembers leave little doubt that they’re completely committed to Smoczynska’s vision, especially Mazurek and Olszanska, who experience repeated transformations of both character and form as the mermaid sisters. Bolesto and Smoczynska seem more concerned with archetypes than with clearly identifiable individuals, however, which makes for an occasionally romanticized interpretation of events that isn’t especially satisfying in narrative terms. Nevertheless, the filmmakers’ enthusiasm for their characters and the vanished period setting is palpable, asserting a certain fatalistic charm of its own.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (World Cinema Dramatic Competition)
Production company: WFDiF Documentary and Feature Film Studios
Cast: Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska, Jakub Gierszal, Kinga Preis, Andrzej Konopka, Zygmunt Malanowicz
Director: Agnieszka Smoczynska
Screenwriter: Robert Bolesto
Producer: Wlodzimierz Niderhaus
Director of photography: Kuba Kijowski
Production designer: Joanna Macha
Costume designer: Katarzyna Lewinska
Editor: Jaroslaw Kaminski
Music: Zuzanna Wronska, Barbara Wronska
Sales: WFDiF

Not rated, 92 minutes