Premiered in Poland, and screened at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, The Lure is the story of two mermaid sisters exploring the human world of Polish nightlife during the early 80s. Directed by Agnieszka Smoczyńska, with Marta Mazurek as Silver and Michalina Olszańska as Golden, the sisters’ tale reworks the major themes of Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid. Unlike Ariel of Andersen or Disney’s Little Mermaid, Golden and Silver are carnivorous and deadly. With these elements, Smoczyńska combines her own memories of growing up in Poland amidst the theatricality and intensity of her mother’s nightclub. Golden and Silver’s first explorations of sex, power, and murder play out against rousing musical numbers featuring 80s-era synth, rock, and piano ballads. This blend of genre makes the structure of the film akin to its main characters: both are hybrids. Golden and Silver demonstrate performances of girlhood and femme sexuality at their most brutal and sacrificial.The film is both a musical comedy and a bloody, carousing meditation on the trauma and sacrifice of what it means to be a burgeoning woman.
The pertinent themes of The Lure are often difficult to piece together. How can a viewer understand the film as a whole, with its fractured, and sometimes contradictory, elements? To reach an understanding of The Lure, and Smoczyńska’s vision of girlhood, it is important to establish a few guiding questions upon which to build conceptual bridges. To begin with, who are Golden and Silver and how does their story end? What is the importance of Andersen’s Little Mermaid? Finally, how does the mermaid connect, both intimately and metaphorically , to the experience of girlhood?
Smoczyńska’s film begins with the sisters watching a young man named Mietek (Jakub Gierszal), strumming his guitar while singing of lost love on a craggy, Polish beach. Golden gently teases her sister about whether to eat or love this particular human. When the sisters decide that eating him is preferable, they begin to sing in order to lure him into the water. With the sweetly crooned line 'we won’t eat you, my dear,' Mietek immediately walks into the water. The singing soon attracts the attention of an older man accompanying Mietek and he too begins to enter the water. Neither are eaten, as the spell is punctured by the deafening screams of an older woman, who witnesses the unusual exchange from shore.
The scene then shifts to a nightclub where Mietek and the man and woman from the beach are performing as a band onstage. The camera takes the point of view of the club’s manager as he advances through the club’s winding corridors in an attempt to track a mysterious, ‘fishy’ odor. He happens upon Golden and Silver, equipped with human legs, jumping on a couch in the green room. In a queasily exploitative gesture, the older, male musician enters the room and undresses the girls, encouraging them to open their legs so that the manager can ‘assess’ their bodies. Through their undressing, it is revealed that neither Golden or Silver possess genitals: their anatomical form is more comparable to dolls than biological humans. The musician further meddles with the girls by flicking droplets of water on their legs to reveal their aquatic forms: sharp teeth and formidably sized tails, spiked and dripping with mucus. Contrary to popular, saccharine imaginings of the mermaid, their tails are slimy apparatuses of violence and desire. While the sisters’ singing is a clear nod to the image of Homer’s deadly Siren, the unveiling of their true forms represents their contradictory nature; they are dangerous and endangered, predator and prey.
In an interview with Rubina Ramji of The Journal of Religion and Film, Smoczyńska states that she took inspiration from the myths of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries that placed mermaids in a taxonomy with dragons: both fierce and deadly creatures. Golden and Silver thus play the part of impervious predators, yet what happens when this seeming impenetrability is ruptured by the heartbreak of unrequited love? As the girls move through the world, humans and other 'merpeople' are attracted by their ephemeral and intangible ‘female’ form. The woman who accompanied Mietek and the musician on beach, for example, sees the ‘girls’ as surrogate daughters. In a dream sequence she sees herself as a mermaid, breastfeeding both Golden and Silver, in a gesture of nourishment and care. However, as the film continues she realizes that neither Silver nor Golden can belong to her.
Though The Lure is beholden to elements of Andersen’s original schema it also explores the tumultuous terrain of female puberty. Throughout the film, the sisters perform various sexual possibilities and identities in order to cultivate a generous expression of girlhood. Silver grows close to Mietek, the young bass player, and falls in love. Unfortunately he ees her only as an object of curiosity: some ‘thing’ to allay his boredom. Silver always initiates their sexual encounters, while Mietek remains mildly disgusted and disengaged. Golden’s relationships take a different route as she picks up men from bars in order to murder and consume their hearts. However, Golden’s encounter with a female cop tasked to find one of these missing men upends her predatory pattern and provides the film with its most sensual sequence. In contrast to the squeamish and tentative manner in which male characters handle the girls’ tails, the female cop is unafraid of Golden’s spikes or bodily fluids. As she enthusiastically runs her tongue over Golden’s tail, a film projection of their earlier duet plays out on the bedroom wall. The presence of the film and both Golden and the cop’s sensual satisfaction shows this coupling as a meeting of equals; a blueprint for pleasure and the satiation of longing. This encounter serves to unfurl the queer lineage that Smoczyńska reconfigures and threads throughout the film. In Andersen’s original tale, Ariel’s queerness was subterranean, her unrequited desire for a human prince symbolized what many critics consider to be Andersen’s own homosexual love for a contemporary. In contrast to Andersen’s positioning of Ariel’s death and unspoken desire as the source of her ultimate redemption, Smoczyńska weaponises her mermaids with teeth, and the means with which to pursue their own satisfaction. Golden and Silver are thus active participants in their own sexual narratives, upending the unstated guilt and shame of Ariel’s original demise.
Andersen’s mythos takes on greater importance once the sisters meet a merman named Triton, the name of Ariel’s father in The Little Mermaid, at their nightclub. Triton is a frontman for a punk band and offers Golden the opportunity to sing backup during a gig. Triton also takes the time to warn Golden that her sister’s love for Mietek is a lost cause. According to Triton, Silver must cut off her tail in order to gain permanent human legs, but will lose her voice in the process. If Mietek does not reciprocate her love Silver will transform into sea foam by dawn on the first day he marries another (a fate made infamous by Andersen’s story). Golden speculates that Silver will be okay and any pesky feelings will pass once she eats Mietek. Their discussion soon turns to the stage and Golden leaves to prepare for the later performance. At the punk show, Golden not only holds her own, but excels at exciting her audience. Eagerly awaiting words of praise or encouragement, Golden is met instead with dismissal and rejection, as Triton demands that she 'practice more before she returns.'
Triton’s rejection of Golden and her rage is a pivotal turning point in the plot, and is demonstrative of Smoczyńska’s symbolic discourse. Golden’s wish to please Triton is a wish to be loved by the paternal, phallic power he represents. Golden realises, however, that she does not belong with him and the sisters find comfort in their shared loneliness. Neither is alone, as long as they have the other. These themes of consent, sacrifice, and the desire to belong are further amplified in the denouement of Silver and Mietek’s relationship. Silver finds the money to undergo a risky operation to exchange her tail for the legs of a corpse. As Silver lays on the operating table she sings of her fear, while Golden harmonizes in a plea for her sister to flee. After the operation, Silver is mute, and Mietek, predictably, does not seem to mind.
Silver’s postoperative buoyancy, her optimism that Mietek will love her human ‘norm’, leads to one of the film’s most gut wrenching scenes. With the confidence provided by her new permanent body Silver attempts to seduce Mietek. As Silver takes off her nightgown the weeping surgical scar wraps around her body as a brutal reminder of what she sacrificed for this moment. In Alan Dundee’s collection of essays on the psychoanalysis of folklore, The Little Mermaid is seen as a story of castration. The mermaid gives up the power symbolized by her tail in order to engage in the story’s gendered hierarchy of sex and power. Silver is also castrated by Mietek’s refusal to recognize her tail as a part of her body and girlhood. The operation is not totally successful and, when having sex with Mietek, Silver is in pain and begins to bleed. Mietek looks on with mild disgust and leaves Silver bleeding and alone. The sequence represents the struggles of girls structurally barred from access to proper care, while Mietek’s actions mimic those of uncaring and abusive partners. Sadly, Silver’s desire to live in the human world overrides any sense of self-care or survival. Her desire for Mietek is all encompassing and grows even stronger after he leaves her. In a sense, he becomes emblematic of the humanity she so desperately wants. Mietek soon pursues a sexual relationship with another woman, whom he later marries. Golden and Silver attend the ceremony as Golden urges Silver to save her own life and eat Mietek. The film reaches its climax as Golden and the camera watch Silver and Mietek dancing together. Their closeness is assumed to be a pretense for Silver to deliver a killing blow. However as the sun rises, Silver disappears, and Mietek is left befuddled and covered with sea foam. Enraged at the loss of her sister, Golden kills Mietek, and as he falls to the floor she jumps overboard, disappearing into the quiet ocean.
Smoczyńska’s sisters represent the composite experiences of girlhood. Though Silver’s ill-fated love contains clear correlations to long feminized and sexualized ideals of selflessness and purity (i.e. the Victorian era 'Angel in the Home' archetype, religious fundamentalist readings of female sexuality, etc.), Golden’s forays cannot be easily summarized as a series of wild or animalistic episodes. Golden found pleasure with an equal and experienced the sting of familial rejection. In the end her escape is an ultimately hopeful event. When she disappears into the ocean she disappears from a state of exploration to one of hard earned knowledge; she has the chance to grow up. The contradictions and complications of desire inherent in the sisters are inherent in the idea of the girl. Experiencing desire and wishing to connect with another while exploring and enjoying one’s body are things shared by all girls. Nevertheless, it is crucial to understand that such desires exist in multiplicity within a matrix of class, race, gender, and disability. For desire that cannot be neatly sorted within the structural confines of heteronormative white supremacy, such acts of love are revolution. In such moments we are bloody and free, and, just like The Lure, it is beautiful.
Words by Annette LePique