Period vampire-mermaid horror-musical The Lure (2016) follows two mermaid sisters, Silver (Marta Mazurek) and Golden (Michalina Olszanska), who come out of the water to sing and dance at an 80s underground Warsaw club. The film's unusual mixture of styles and genres yields a deeply strange and original retelling of an old legend – the tale of the mermaid who ventures onto land and falls in love with a human man. For her innovative vision in re-interpretating the mermaid story, director Agnieszka Smoczyńska won Sundance 2016's World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award for Unique Vision and Design.
But Smoczyńska’s original idea for The Lure did not involve mermaids at all. Her first inspiration was the environment of the underground singing and dancing club where Silver and Golden get jobs as performers, a huge part of the Polish culture in the 80s. "In the time of Communism under the Iron Curtain, poor people could come to a restaurant, and there was a band every day [playing] music live," Smoczyńska told ScreenPrism at Sundance. "They would also play covers of popular songs from the West and Polish songs. There was striptease, there was a magician, and there was a show. Outside there was poverty, no color, nothing, but inside the restaurant, there was another life, a better life." Smoczyńska herself lived in such a restaurant (her mother ran two) until she was four. She wanted to tell the story of initiation into that world, but when one of her musician friends protested that the story was too intimate and autobiographical, the screenwriter suggested the idea of mermaids "as a metaphor for the growing-up girl."
The underground Warsaw club featured in The Lure (2016)
Smoczyńska’s first starting points for the mermaid myth were the sirens of Homer and the traditional mermaid emblem of Warsaw. "Warsaw, where the film is set, has an emblem of a mermaid," she said. "In Warsaw, every place you can see a mermaid, in the bus tickets, in the tube tickets, there is a mermaid. There is a legend about mermaids who come to Warsaw, and of course it is a love story, but it is a different story." Moving on from The Iliad and The Odyssey, she read many myths and legends about mermaids from a variety of sources and time periods. Ultimately, though, for Smoczyńska, the true meaning of the mermaid is symbolic to communicate a universal coming-of-age tale. "We use mermaids as a metaphor for girls growing up, of being a mature girl," she said.
When it came to realizing the vision of a mermaid, as Smoczyńska started to search for popular conceptions of the half-fish half-woman figure, she felt unsatisfied with conventional representations like that of Hans Christian Anderson’s original The Little Mermaid and Ariel from Disney's The Little Mermaid (1989). "I realized that the appearance of mermaids was really infantilized – she should be cute, she should wear a bra, she should have long hair, like Ariel from Disney, and I said, no, why destroy real mermaids?" Smoczyńska said. "Real mermaids, real Sirens, they ate people; they could seduce. Vampires seduce via eyes, they hypnotized victims via eyes, and Sirens hypnotize via voice. That is why we wanted to make music."
Thus the musical portion of the film developed out of the mermaid’s heritage as a siren, and the other genre elements came from other aspects of the mermaid’s distinct nature. "Our hybrid genre is because of hybrid characters," Smoczyńska told me. "It’s half a woman and half a fish. Because they sing, there is the musical. Because they eat people, there is horror. Because of their fish tails, there is a little bit of fantasy." And finally, because — like the two halves of the mermaid — these diverse genres sometimes clash, "there is grotesque."
To conceive of The Lure’s own original interpretation of the mermaid, Smoczyńska asked an artist she knows who paints "hybrid characters… strange, perverse characters for unedited fairy tales for adults" to create some visual ideas. "I asked her, Please, paint for us modern mermaids because we didn’t want to copy mermaids from paintings or films. We wanted to create something new, and we wanted to create a modern woman as a metaphor for becoming a mature woman. She painted them with these long, long fish tails. Very reptilian, full of mucus, full of slime, ugly."
Smoczyńska loved this representation because of its duality: on the one hand a beautiful woman, on the other hand a monster. "Mermaids can be an archetype of the femme fatale – to seduce you and after that to kill you in a symbolic way," she said. The way that they dealt with nudity was extremely important to her: "We wanted them, of course, not to wear a bra. I wanted to make it not look like playboy, but in a natural way. Because the nature of mermaids is they don’t feel ashamed."
As a metaphor for growing up, the mermaid story has strong resonance for young girls who are finding their way and discovering themselves. "When a girl comes of age, she can lose herself or she can build herself," Smoczyńska said. "Silver loses herself because when she cuts her fish tail, she loses her voice, she loses her inner voice, she loses her nature. Very often when you are becoming mature, when you have a first love, because of this very, very strong feeling, you can lose yourself. Silver loses something important inside of her because of him."
Smoczyńska identifies a pivotal scene in the film as the moment at the very end when Silver must decide whether to eat the young man she loves or to die herself. Because he has married another woman, the rules of the sea dictate that, unless she kills him, she will turn to sea foam before daybreak. "There is a love, there is a death at the same moment – and there is the decision," Smoczyńska explained. "Because she chose love, she loses herself. This is the thought of the film."
Silver (Marta Mazurek) watches as the man she loves marries another woman in The Lure (2016)
Anderson's The Little Mermaid also ends with the lovesick mermaid turning to sea foam when her beloved marries another, but Smoczyńska notes that in that story "because she loved him, because she didn’t kill him, she in 300 years can have a soul. She can have a salvation. I didn’t [include this], because I think that is a happy ending. I didn’t want to put in any thesis of 'it's wrong,' 'it's a good choice' or 'it's bad.' It's her choice, and there are the consequences of this choice."
Visually, Smoczyńska sought to create the warmth of her own childhood recollections of the underground dancing scene with its lively and colorful, yet not campy, atmosphere. She wanted the film to look painterly and stylized while evoking the feeling of being underwater.
She also took visual inspiration from photographers like Diane Arbus and Nan Goldin. "I like them because there is realism, but also something special" in the way they light and photograph people. She liked the taste of Goldin, as opposed to the campy style of The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975). Smoczyńska was looking for visual inspiration from that time period because The Lure is set in "the so-called 80s," although her aim was not to create an accurate period film but rather to draw inspiration from her own childhood memories and a sense of the mermaids’ underwater habitat. "Everything in this film is stylized. I just wanted to bring back from memories of this place. I asked my set designer to have many flashy things, like in the water, many murals, so that viewer could feel this kind of club is underwater."
Director of Photographer Kuba Kijowski also worked with the light and the colors to evoke the atmosphere Smoczyńska sought – "he used old lenses, which they were using in the 80s. He uses lights like in the 80s in such clubs. It was very important to him."
Most importantly, Smoczyńska wanted the final vision, like her hybrid film overall, to create the warm feeling of a grown person looking back on the innocence and naiveté of early childhood. "When you are a child and growing up, you think about your backgrounds in nice colors and in a nice way," she said. "I wanted to build such a world."
Director Agnieszka Smoczyńska with her World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award for Unique Vision and Design at Sundance 2016, Photo by Ryan Kobane (KobanePhoto.com)