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THE LURE’s Director, on Man-Eating Mermaids and Her Burlesque Background

THE LURE’s Director, on Man-Eating Mermaids and Her Burlesque Background

Forget what you think you know about mermaids. The Lure has challenged your pretty preconceived notions of flirty girls in fins with a horror-musical that’s alive with quirky dance sequences, shocking gore, and man-eating mermaids. Nerdist sat down with this unrepentant, outrageous debut’s daring director Agnieszka Smoczynska to dive into the subversive depths of her glorious genre-bender that has critics going gaga.

Set in 1980s Warsaw, The Lure centers on mermaid sisters Silver (Marta Mazurek) and Golden (Michalina Olszańska), who leave their watery hunting ground to join a nearby burlesque club’s resident band. While Golden exploits this foray on land as an absurd adventure perfect for toying with her human prey, Silver falls hard for a cute bassist, and considers giving up her mermaid identity for good. It’s a coming of age story that’s one part fairy tale and one part fever dream, complete with body horror, bawdy burlesque, and moody musical numbers.

The burlesque club backdrop of glitter and grime comes from Smoczynska’s own upbringing. While Poland suffered under an oppressive regime that punished protesters and filled the streets with soldiers, the young storyteller was safe and happy in the wings of a club run by her mother. “In Poland we call them dancing clubs,” she explained, describing these escapes from the “grey” real world as sanctuaries that boasted “glamor, beautiful colors, better food, better drinks. There was fun and dancing.” That was where Smoczynska grew up, and in a sense it makes the story of aquatic antiheroes–called Daughters of the Dance Club” in the Polish release’s title–a semi-autobiographical one.

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Robert Bolesto‘s script also takes a page or to from Hans Christian Andersen‘s “The Little Mermaid,” but with a few twists that make The Lure more midnight movie than family-friendly. Chief among these is the design of its powerful mermaids. These fanged and fearsome creatures shun seashell bras and boast thick, eel-like tails, evoking a terror when they’re first spotted. Smoczynska explained, “I wanted to create a new archetype of a mermaid, not so infantile like it was in Disney or what you see [in] popular films and everywhere.”

Early on, Smoczynska considered a more typical design for her mermaids, “a normal version, sexy fish-girl, cute like it was in the Disney movies.” Then came a meeting with the film’s composers, Barbara and Zuzanna Wrońska of the Polish indie band Ballady i Romanse, where Smoczynska urged the singing sisters to “go farther in search of new ways of communication via music.” From there, she realized her creature concept should also push into unfamiliar terrain. So she called on Polish painter Alexandra Waliszewska to create The Lure‘s concept art.

Waliszewska wasn’t known for making mermaids, but she seemed perfect for the project. “She painted creatures from a fairy tale for adults; perverse creatures.” Smoczynska explained, “And I liked this taste because you can feel this is not cute, this is not infantilized.” Challenged with conceiving a new interpretation of mermaids, Waliszewska did not disappoint. Influenced by mermaid imagery from the 15th and 16th centuries, Waliszewska “painted this mermaid with this long, long ugly fish tale.” Some of her art splashes across The Lure‘s opening title cards. “You can see it’s stinky. It’s full of mucous. It tells us that the mermaid is half woman and half monster.”

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Their monster half is what makes Silver and Golden a spectacle to those who crowd the dingy dance hall to see them sing, strip, and transform with a splash of water. The audience objectifies them, fawning over their bodies in reactions Smoczynska compares to how society in the real world commonly objectifies and sexualizes the young female form. But for the mermaids, their nudity is natural. Smoczynska directed her leading ladies to act in their numerous nude scenes casually, “that they are not ashamed.” And while the patrons of the club may leer, the camera never does. “I didn’t want to show them like in an erotic movie or something like this,” the rebellious helmer declared, “We wanted it to be like how you’d watch like a dog or an animal or a bird or a wolf without clothes.” The Lure recognizes the desire others place on the mermaid’s bodies, but first and foremost focuses on the natural power these bodies hold, laying the ground for Silver’s coming-of-age conflict.

Like Andersen’s mermaid, Silver is convinced her “prince” could can only love her if she sacrifices a major part of herself–her voice and tail–to conform to conventional beauty standards. In The Lure, this isn’t achieved with a bit of sparkling magic, but instead a grisly operation where Silver’s tail is dramatically sliced off. And as it’s severed so is her voice, mid-tremulous song. “It’s the image, the archetype, the metaphor of what girls will do to be much more beautiful, to feel much more comfortable and desired,” Smoczynska laments. “The fishtail is a symbol for something that is unique to you, something that you are ashamed of, something you don’t want to show because you think it’s not good.” In telling a mermaid tale, this Polish provocateur plums the insecurities society heaps on young women.

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While the film has been heralded as feminist, Smoczynska doesn’t consider herself a political filmmaker. Asked what she feels a filmmakers responsibility is in a time that is so politically divisive, she offered, “It’s my task and my agenda is to build empathy. And I think it’s my agenda as a director to the viewer to make people much more empathetic. For me this is important. I think this is what we can do, filmmakers with movies.”

The Lure is now playing in select theaters. 

Images: Janus Films

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