Disney princesses they most certainly ain’t, even if like good old Ariel, the little mermaids of the (wait for it…) Polish horror fairy tale pop musical The Lure by director Agnieszka Smoczyńska are based on Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale. In spite of their fish-like tails they are decidedly different beasts from Disney’s red-haired teen heroine.
The first time we see Golden and Silver, it is at night: only their heads emerge from the water and they stare at the nightclub singer, her equally ageing drummer and the young, blonde bass player on the beach with barely concealed hunger of one kind or another, as their siren song emanating from the nighttime waves promises that “there’s no need to fear, we won’t eat you…” – though the words that linger are the repeated, ominous “… eat you, eat you, eat you…”.
The two sisters hunger for different things, though: they both enjoy the glitzy, gaudy stardom they gain when they become the main attraction at the nightclub where the trio works, but where Golden embraces alt-’80s Warsaw as a predator embraces new hunting grounds, Silver falls hard for the bass player – not so much because of his compelling personality, as the young man, who is hardly more than a boy, has the personality of a damp towel and tells her directly that he will never truly love her because to him she’s an animal, not a human being. What she is in love with is the idea of being human, being a real girl, and if she has to lose her tail, her voice and possibly even her life in the process, well, so be it. Meanwhile, Golden explores different facets of her monstrousness, from killing and feeding on a male nightclub visitor to seducing, and being seduced by, the policewoman investigating the murder.
I’ve recently watched a few films that depicted young women as predatory supernatural creatures, such as Spring by Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead to Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, two horror romances where a young man falls for a monster that usually feeds on men – and who begins to return these romantic feelings. Both these films have a lot of sympathy (and, yes, lust) for their monstrous females, and neither posits them as antagonists that may be alluring but that need to be destroyed nevertheless. Still, there is something strange and not altogether pleasant about the premise, in particular when the stories prioritise the man’s perspective. The Lure both goes furthest in exposing its man-eating mermaids to the male gaze – even if Golden and Silver may not have the full set of feminine endowments, they are the product that is sold at the nightclub, they’re there to be devoured by the (interestingly both male and female) audience’s hungry eyes. Yet by doubling the number of mermaids from Andersen’s original, Smoczyńska and her writer Robert Bolesto get to explore two versions of the monstrous woman: one that complies, that gives up what makes her unique in order to please a man, and that is then annihilated when that man finds out that women can be messy and moves on to the next blonde, and one that bites and snarls and is entirely her own creature.
The Lure is often lurid and messy, so it is difficult – and possibly futile – to neatly pigeon-hole it intellectually. The film isn’t above ogling Golden and Silver’s bodies, yet they are not mere objects, and there are other jagged edges on which our initial responses and our interpretations snag and tear. Even if Silver meets the same fate as her Danish ancestor, Golden gets revenge for her sister. She will not be domesticated by a man who may give her five minutes of his attention and then tossed aside. You can look at her all you want – but men have been known to lose their hearts listening to this particular siren’s song. Look at her the wrong way, and you may feel those teeth.