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Credit: Janis Films

The Lure is the Citizen Kane of feminist killer mermaid synth-pop musicals

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Jul 24, 2018, 3:51 PM EDT (Updated)

It’s tempting to end the article at that title. How the hell do you improve a pitch that good? Fortunately, The Lure is even better than that gloriously outlandish, but 100% accurate, description suggests. Agnieszka Smoczyńska's debut film received mixed reviews when it opened in America, with some critics claiming it couldn't live up to its own premise, but this wholly committed story of misogyny, the sex industry, and the search for fame has ambition that stretches far beyond mere gimmick.

This 2016 genre-bending musical drama is a 1980s-set period piece, following two mermaids, Gold and Silver, who become minor stars on the Polish club scene as well as sex objects for the morbidly curious men they encounter. It shouldn't work — a sci-fi fantasy allegory for misogyny crossed over with a Polish synth-pop musical — yet it does with sheer aplomb and a deceptively sharp takedown of one of the Western literary canon's most enshrined texts.

Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid is one of the most iconic fairy tales ever written, and easily one of the most depressing. It’s also arguably the one that’s been most softened by time. The Disney film made it more palatable for mainstream audiences and gave it the cathartic happy-ever-after they craved, while a large chunk of other re-imaginings take similarly sweeter approaches to the material. That’s hardly a bad thing — Andersen’s tale is very much of its time, and most writers don’t have much interest in dealing with his rampant misogyny — but it does little to interrogate how truly bleak that story is. It’s a tale of extended agony and suffering directed at one young woman whose only sin was to want love.

The Little Mermaid is so entranced by the handsome prince that she suffers endless agonizing pain just for the opportunity to be near him. Every step on her new legs is like walking on sharp knives, yet she dances for the prince because he is so entertained by her. She has an opportunity to return to her old life if she kills him but cannot bring herself to do it and chooses to turn into sea foam instead. Because of her apparent selflessness, she is given a chance to enter Heaven if she does good deeds for humanity for the next 300 years. Yet every time a child misbehaves, a day is added to her sentence. Essentially, her misery will never end, and Andersen positions this as the ultimate act of nobility. No wonder P.L. Travers, creator of Mary Poppins, called the story emotional blackmail.

The Lure is one of the more faithful adaptations of the tale, even with the glorious '80s synth aesthetic. While they live in mermaid form, there are ways for men to engage in intercourse with them, but when they have legs, they’re Barbie doll smooth on both sides (and yes, you get a nice long image of that). They’re desired by men and women in almost exclusively sexual terms but can never meet the standards desired of them. Essentially, they have been set up to fail.

The central metaphor is a crude one — the fishiness of the mermaids is a somewhat cringe-inducing parallel to menstruation and the scent of period blood — but applied with brutal effectiveness. There’s a fine tradition of women and body horror in cinema, and The Lure feels right at home with the best, thanks to some memorably horrific scenes involving leg transplants and open wounds. Smoczyńska strips sex of its sexiness and exposes the exploitative system young women inevitably find themselves in. It's a trap that nobody can succeed in — the virgin/whore complex reigns supreme and every woman ends up stuck between one of two impossible extremes. The moment the mermaids start to be truly human is when the men begin to lose interest in them, the fantasy long destroyed.

All of this makes The Lure sound like a drag. It’s undeniably bleak in places but never fetishistic about it, and the music is endlessly catchy, even if you don’t speak Polish. How else would an ensemble of seedy club performers and living show-pieces express their feelings to the world? In a world where original cinematic musicals are few and far between, much less those proudly rooted in speculative fiction, The Lure feels simultaneously dazzling in its originality and comforting in its familiar roots. Imagine if Donna Summer and Stephen Sondheim teamed up for Eurovision and you’re partly there, yet not even close.

Ultimately, while The Lure takes dizzying turns into unexpected territory and new twists on well-known lore, at its heart it is a simple tale of the cruelty of the world against women. These girls, equal parts naïve and world-weary, must play by impossible rules and standards that seldom make sense, and they must do it with a smile and a song. They must give up everything that defines them as their own person, but at the end of the day they’ll probably still be cast aside for someone else. It’s blunt and the most cruel allegories of misogyny made literal, but therein lies its hypnotic force.

Agnieszka Smoczyńska could not have made a greater impact with her cinematic debut than she did with The Lure. Getting your first movie into the Criterion Collection is a sure-fire sign that you’ve made it. Up next for her is a planned David Bowie musical using the concept album Outside. If you thought a Polish synth-pop feminist mermaid musical was ambitious, think about a sci-fi dystopian Bowie opera centered on a grotesque murder mystery. We’re buying our ticket now.

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