Before getting into the actual meat of this festival review, I’d like to provide some context regarding the festival itself, speaking as a regular attendee. With the 2016 instalment being my fifth time at the Edinburgh International Film Festival (EIFF), I’ve come to notice patterns in the programming over the last couple of years. Sadly, one of them is that one usually can’t trust the quality control of the British films having their world premiere there, bar the odd gem like Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio. More positively, though, is the annual entry in what I will label the “I’m Glad You Exist” category.
What does this category entail? Well, it’s a film — and usually a European one at that — which offers an especially daffy premise and such a mishmash of genres as to make it pretty hard to even classify what it is. As such, these films tend to have a pretty hard time gaining non-festival distribution outside of their respective countries of origin, but they stick with you over the years far more than most of the Britflick landfill you’ll end up gorging on while in Scotland’s capital. You’re glad they exist because at least they’ve gone all in with standing out from virtually everything else around.
You can often work out what a given year’s “I’m Glad You Exist” film will be just from browsing the festival brochure, but it’s obviously a plus when you see the film in question and it’s actually, well, good. For example, EIFF 2015 had Liza, the Fox-Fairy, a fun Hungarian film in which a lonely live-in nurse in 1960s Budapest is friends with the ghost of a late Japanese pop singer that only she can see — a ghost that loves to dance, but also gets insanely jealous of anyone Liza gets close to and subsequently influences various fatal accidents that see Liza become a subject of interest for the police. You know, that old, familiar tale.
So onto 2016, and the year’s “I’m Glad You Exist” film made itself pretty clear in the brochure once again. That said, Agnieszka Smoczynska’s debut feature, The Lure, offers a lot more surprises than the simple synopsis of “Polish musical horror with mermaids” suggests, and that’s a pretty weird gambit already.
For one thing, the musical numbers are largely synth-pop tunes, many of which are performed as part of a cabaret set-up in the film’s 1980s Warsaw setting — there’s original numbers alongside cover versions of songs like Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love.” How do two mermaids end up performing in a Warsaw burlesque club/restaurant? Well, one dark night, a pair of siren sisters, Golden (Michalina Olszanska) and Silver (Marta Mazurek), approach a family of musicians who happen to be spending some time by the shore. There’s a handsome, young bass player, Mietek (Jakub Gierszal), his drummer dad Perkusista (Andrzej Konopka), and lead singer matriarch Wokalistka (Kinga Preis). For whatever reason, the trio decides to bring the mermaid pair — who introduced themselves from the water with a ditty assuring that they won’t eat them — back to the nightclub where they all work, and they’re immediately signed up as a new musical act by the club’s owner (Zygmunt Malanowicz). The name of their act: The Lure.
The party tricks afforded by the mermaid lower halves of the sisters are naturally part of the appeal of their act beyond their singing prowess, but Robert Bolesto’s screenplay offers this conceit where the pair can pass off the region below their waist as (mostly) human. It’s only with a splash of water that their tails reappear, otherwise you just have ordinary-seeming legs that allow them to walk or run like the surrounding humans. The big difference is that this lower half cover is lacking in anything resembling genitalia or what you’d find on most humans round the back. As creepily described by the club owner during an early nude examination, they’re as “smooth as Barbie dolls.”
So, despite the rather large amount of onscreen nudity, this is not a story of sexualised sirens designed to fulfill the fish-based fantasies of the Troy McClure’s out there. In fact, it is when lust and love enter proceedings that the mermaids’ fates are threatened. For the most part, Golden keeps up her asexual ways; her main concerns are with secretly getting away with feeding on easily lured local men at night, until too many bodies pile up for authorities and the human band members not to suspect something. Silver, however, becomes smitten with the young bass player, and things go all Hans Christian Andersen with her attempts to change herself in order to be with him, which includes sacrificing her tail (and singing voice for some reason) via a lower half transplant with a human female that totally works in this particular cinematic world (just go with it). The trouble with the (admittedly often confusing) mermaid mythology presented is that if one pledges their love to a human and that human is ultimately unable to reciprocate, that mermaid risks a transformation into little more than sea matter or froth upon the human’s pledge to another of their kind.
As has hopefully come across, The Lure is rather loony and freewheeling when it comes to narrative. It’s occasionally a detriment, particularly when a couple of supporting performances can’t manage to propel some of the characterisation issues — Jakub Gierszal as young Mietek never manages to come across as more than a milquetoast pretty-boy, which makes Silver’s devotion to him a little difficult to comprehend as the film goes on. But while Smoczynska lacks on the character front outside of her three central women (Kinga Preis cuts an arresting figure as the matriarch crooner), she more than makes up for it with the sheer gusto of the film’s direction in almost every other respect. The enthusiasm for this batshit world she has is palpable on screen, and the technical confidence and tonal balance are remarkably assured for a debut feature, especially in light of all the disparate notes she plays with. It’s likely going a bit far to say that The Lure resembles what Jacques Demy might have made if he ever took an interest in horror (or fantasy beyond dressing Catherine Deneuve up as a donkey), but the execution of the musical set-pieces really stand up to scratch.
It may sound like an odd compliment to praise a film for coming across like an ambien trip. For many, that will be the exact opposite of what they want from any film. Me, I’m just glad this film exists.
Josh Slater-Williams (@jslaterwilliams) is a freelance writer based in England. Alongside writing for Vague Visages, he is a regular contributor to independent British magazine The Skinny and has written for Little White Lies magazine, VODzilla.co, The Film Stage, and PopOptiq.