A nightclub hits the jackpot when two sisters with siren-like voices emerge out of nowhere and become the hottest act in town. The tricky thing is that they are mermaids, and feast off the flesh of entranced men to satiate their bloodthirst. One of them, Gold, has come ashore with dreams of stardom and a hatred of men; the other, Silver, only wants true love. The fantastical horror musical from Polish director Agnieszka Smoczynska premiered at Sundance this year and makes its Canadian Premiere tonight at Fantasia. Of all the films I’ve seen this year, THE LURE, or CÓRKI DANCINGU as it titled in Poland, packs more creativity, more visual flair, more energy, excitement and originality into it running than any other.
“Mermaids are a metaphor of a growing up girl,” says Smoczynska, who I had a chance to interview at Sundance with her two lead actresses shortly after THE LURE’s world premiere, “a creature who is not a child but who wants to be a human being, who wants to be a mature woman.” But these are not the Hans Christian Anderson Little Mermaids, these are ravenous creatures of vengeance. “I remembered in Homer – the sirens – they lured people, but after… they eat them,” the director says, “and I really like that because it was kind of the wild nature of woman.” With this drive, the film, though packed with drama and fun and singing, becomes a horror film, with the dark tension and shadowy characters that genre fans around the world can easily embrace. “I was inspired by American photographers, Diane Arbus, Nan Goldin, Sally Mann,” says the director, “they photographed weird people, freaks, strangers.” Smoczynska and her cinematographer Jakub Kijowski aimed for a new hybrid genre, what they called a ‘city film.’
For the actresses playing the mermaid sisters, the film was a dream come true. “It was so amazing when I knew I would play a mermaid,” says Marta Mazurek, who plays Silver, the love-struck mermaid in THE LURE, “when I was two or maybe four I had the soundtrack for the Little mermaid and I was playing with blankets like they were waves. When I was in middle school I had two months when I would come home and watch Little Mermaid every day, every single day.” Michalina Olszanska, who portrays the bloodthirsty Gold – or Golden as they sometimes refer to her (it may be the translation), says they were fated to play these roles: “in my family there was a legend that my great-grandmother was a water nymph.”
Not only individually, but the two actresses seemed destined to play these mermaids together. “We played lovers, roommates, and now sisters,” says Olszanska, “we are like a team already.” Mazurek says they were very excited to get to work together again: “in the previous movies we hadn’t gotten a chance to build the relationship, because it was just a few scenes.” On THE LURE, the actress explains “we had so many rehearsals, at first we didn’t get each other so close, and then after one or two days we had a really deep rehearsal, psychological.” Agnieszka Smoczynska, when casting, did not even know the two had worked together previously, but their connection on screen stems directly from their differing but complimentary dispositions. “After I asked Marta to be Silver, I was searching for her partner to see if there was chemistry between them,” says the director, “they’re like one personality. Gold is very close to the wild nature, and Silver is very sensitive and she is very close to the human beings.”
This difference can be seen immediately in the energy when the sisters come out of the water. Mazurek’s Silver is very curious and Olszanska’s Gold is like ‘what can I get out of this.’ The roles required a lot of physical preparation, and not just working in a 55-pound mermaid tail. “We hardly speak in the movie,” reminds Olszanska, “we sing, and look, we had to speak by gazing.” Mazurek is quick to agree: “Golden is about body and instincts, and Silver is about spirituality. And also instincts. Everything here is more instincts.”
Two sides of the same creature, they naturally go about their time on land differently. “I thought let’s make our mermaids modern,” says Smoczynska, “I wanted them to eat people – when we had to decide what kind of eating that was – they eat human hearts, they feed themselves with human hearts … so Silver, she wants the human heart in a psychological way, but Golden she wants just to eat the human heart, a consumption.” For both actresses, it meant getting closer to nature. “I remember I quit the Internet and media,” says Mazurek, “I just wanted to be as I am and seeing only nature around me. To find the predator in us, the strength, because I think I am more fragile, and I really needed to work on it to have this strength, this monster animal. And also be this monster animal who wants to be a human. But of course my mermaid is more spiritual.” Olszanska jumps in: “and I’m just an animal, and I love it.” Talking to the actresses, it is clear Smoczynska has pitch perfect casting instincts, something the girls echo. “I think we have this energy in life as well,” says Mazurek, “In many ways, we are based on contrasts and I think that was the goal of getting us together.”
Strangely, the original idea did not even have mermaids in it. Smoczynska’s friend Robert Bolesto proposed they make a film together, a musical. “I hate musicals,” says the director. Bolesto knew two friends who grew up in a ‘dance’ restaurant as seen in the film, and had a band. He wanted to tell the story of two sisters who grew up in such a club and have his friends write some music for the film. Smoczynska was intrigued because her mom used to run a restaurant, and they lived in a small room on site. “I grew up in such a place,” she remembers, “I felt the sexual tension between people, it was a place where people dance, where people drink plenty of vodka, and it was like all the time the sex, I remember this from my childhood.” A few weeks into the process of writing the screenplay, one of the friends who was the inspiration of the idea decided she did not want to be involved and Bolesto suggested ‘let’s make them mermaids.’
Embracing the fairy-tale aspect allowed Smoczynska to explore something stranger, darker, dirtier, and yet something also more universal. “Grimm’s fairy tales are full of blood, full of sexual tension, but for children,” she says, “and when you want to tell a fairytale for an adult you can make it much more perverted.” Her dual femme fatales ooze sex through the whole film, but in very different ways. “I think when I was preparing for this role, there was something about this attraction to men’s bodies, to see his veins,” says Mazurek about Silver, “my mermaid was spiritual but this love for this guy what was also attracting her to him was his body, because this is the nature of the mermaid.” For Olszanska’s Golden, the nudity and sexuality was quite different from the standard portrayal. “It’s not about love or sex, it’s about eating them,” she says, “we just had to be nudist animals, we didn’t have to feel. But when we seduce men it’s just to catch the man and actually eat them. So the sexuality is mixed with hunger.”
“For me it was very important to choose actors where you can feel sexuality,” says Smoczynska, praising Mazurek and Olszanska’s performance, “because this film is an initiation story.” But this is not normal sex, this is weird mer-people sex, so we never see it, and it’s hard to even imagine how it might work. “I really liked the idea of the sex scene with fishtails, it’s really funny looking,” says the director, “there’s a slit in the fishtail, Which I really like because it’s the sin, it shows us the taste of the movie, of the sexuality, that you don’t talk about it directly, but in a metaphor.”
According to the actresses, the tails were longer than expected, and their arrival on set for the first time was quite shocking. “When we got into the tails, we couldn’t get out of it,” says Mazurek. “We needed like five men each to carry us,” says Olszanska, “it was great.” Working in the mermaid costumes, sometimes six hours at a time, the actresses really did have to rely on their gaze and expressions to create the sexual energy, because they couldn’t do much else. “Our gaze is connected to our sexuality, not our body, because we have nothing here,” says Olszanska, pointing between her legs.
The other weapon they have, of course, is their voice. A mermaid’s call is the stuff of legend. “We couldn’t sing like singers do,” explains Mazurek, “we had to sing like children.” Says Olszanska: “It had to be simple.” And yet the music, is anything but. “I asked my musicians to compose great powerful music for the girls,” says the director, “I wanted them to be very aggressive.” THE LURE features many different vocal talents, but Silver and Golden stand out in contrast to the other characters. “We’re singing because we can’t talk,” reminds Mazurek, “underwater creatures communicate by sounds.” Another mer-creature in the film, Triton, has adjusted to life on land a little more and sounds more punk. Smoczynska says the band that composed music was inspired by Slavic music, punk, David Bowie, Bjork, and all sorts of pop music. “When I heard their first album,” she says, “I really was lured.”
THE LURE manages a rare feat, drawing on a mythology that everyone knows and twisting it into something fresh and exciting. The other film that accomplished that recently was LIZA THE FOX FAIRY, a Hungarian film. Both films explode with creativity and paint vivid pictures of worlds that almost demand the viewer dive right in. “People are coming back to the myths, because in our culture people want to go to the roots,” says Agnieszka Smoczynska, “people really want to feel the old civilizations, the old myths.” As a young girl, her mother read her myths – not fairy tales she is quick to point out – and she was fascinated later, as a teenager, with the writings of Joseph Campbell, whose work heavily influenced THE LURE. Says the director, “I think if you just showed these archetypes in a new way, it’s very powerful.”
THE LURE, or CÓRKI DANCINGU makes its Canadian Premiere tonight at Fantasia International Film Festival with more festivals lined up around the world after.
the nsfw trailer: