The seaweed is always grislier in Agnieszka Smoczynska's unbalanced but enticing vampire-mermaid musical fable.
“Look at this stuff — isn’t it neat?” sang the heroine of Disney’s “The Little Mermaid,” gesturing at her glittering earthly possessions while ruefully admitting their triviality. It’s a line “The Lure,” a very different kind of fairy-fishtail, might sing without any of the wistful irony: Polish tyro helmer Agnieszka Smoczynska’s deeply dippy story of vampire mermaid sisters wreaking havoc above water gleefully shows off its cluttered collection of whosits and whatsits galore. Yet as it morphs restlessly from siren-shrill horror to Europop musical to, gradually, a loose but sincere riff on Hans Christian Andersen, it seems the pic may contain a thingamabob (or 20) too many. Still, this kooky-monster escapade is never less than arresting, and sometimes even a riot: There’s nothing else like it in the sea, which should encourage offbeat international distribs to make it part of their world.
Not exactly the picture of evergreen yuletide fare, Smoczynska’s film opened on Christmas Day in Poland last year before premiering internationally at Sundance a month later — where it won an inarguably worded jury prize for “unique vision and design.” By the helmer’s own admission in Park City Q&As, the domestic reception was less welcoming; by appearing as a foreign object in all senses on the festival circuit, “The Lure” will find auds willing to take the bait. Certainly, non-Polish speakers can only speculate as to whether the pic’s verbal eccentricities are carried over from its native tongue, or the delightful outcome of translation: “Holy moly, bitter tastes can be delicious as hell/Picking at love’s cracked-up shells,” run the lyrics of one musical number, which seem pretty in tune with the surrounding sensibility of proceedings.
As for the decidedly cracked-up shell of the narrative, Robert Bolesto’s script wastes little time in getting to the fun stuff, impatiently leaving matters of characterization and world-building in the shallow end. Teenage sisters Silver (Marta Mazurek) and Golden (Michalina Olszanska) yearn for a new life on American soil, but obligingly surface in Warsaw when unwittingly summoned by the human song of Mietek (Jakub Gierszal), the handsome young bass player of a low-rent nightclub band. “Help us come ashore … we won’t eat you, dear,” they sing back at him, a little too menacingly for comfort. Sprouting human legs once they hit dry land, the girls follow him back to his workplace, where the sleazebag proprietor (Zygmunt Malanowicz) hires them as strippers and backing singers to the band’s brassy interpretations of dance-floor standards. (Suffice it to say that Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” has never sounded less velvety or more Velveeta.)
Word spreads with unsurprising speed of two nude mermaids (their tails return when wet) writhing in disco-fabulous style atop giant champagne coupes. Local celebrity does little, however, to aid a heartsore Silver’s unrequited crush on Mietek, while Golden increasingly struggles to contain her blood-sucking urges — particularly with so many leeringly interested men to hand.
After this simple but stylistically distracted setup, the screenplay runs a little low on blood itself: Beyond relishing the myth-meshing weirdness of the concept, it’s short on ideas as to what to actually do with the mermaids’ vampirism. More compelling is Silver’s romantic quest, which alludes in roundabout fashion to “The Little Mermaid’s” original, more fatalistic literary form. Handed dazzlingly conceived creatures rather than fully defined characters to play, Mazurek and Olszanska (who recently stood out to more somber effect in the Berlinale premiere “I, Olga Hepnarova”) jointly exude suitably hypnotizing screen presence; that we can’t take our eyes off them is no mean feat in a film that isn’t short on mirrorball-shiny visual embellishments.
The sheer driving (or should that be diving?) recklessness of Smoczynska’s aesthetic, then, is what holds “The Lure” together even as its storytelling begins to thrash about. Together with exuberant contributions from d.p. Kuba Kijowski, production designer Joanna Macha and costume designer Katarzyna Lewinska, the helmer conjures a luridly iridescent sheen for the film that equally evokes the girls’ own piscine scales and the cheap-chic nylon and sequins of the film’s communist-era nightlife setting — abetted by impressive lo-fi effects work, the musical numbers alone come to resemble the wildest dreams of every Eurovision show producer. Whether the 1980s period trappings are merely there for their own substantial kitsch value, or whether a degree of political subtext is present in these shenanigans, is among a number of questions left unanswered in the surf.