Pity the poor souls who have tried to breathlessly describe “The Lure” to their friends ever since the film premiered at Sundance last winter, as any potential summary risks making the film involving singing and flesh-eating mermaids sound like the most random movie ever. But to hear the film’s director Agnieszka Smoczyńska explain how it was just a matter of one thing leading to another after being inspired to make an allegory for a world all too eager to take advantage of young women, she adds to the list of seemingly impossible things she’s accomplished with it – she finds the words to describe it as effortlessly as she makes the story work on screen.
“[The mermaids are like] a mask you can hide behind, like a metaphor for growing up as girls,” Smoczyńska recounts of breaking the story of Silver (Marta Mazurek) and Gold (Michalina Olszanska), sisters who perform at a nightclub when they aren’t in the sea. “Because they were mermaids, we decided to make musical because [mermaids] sing and because they also eat flesh, there’s a horror movie. [Once you had] the combination of these two genres, you have comedy, and the protagonist is a hybrid, so [it made sense] to be a hybrid of genre.”
As a result, “The Lure” is naturally expectation-proof, but the filmmaker is aware that there are plenty given her Polish roots, which is likely why she felt obligated to tell the crowd before a screening of “The Lure” at the AFI Fest that “Because of [Krzysztof] Kieslowski, there are no mermaid films or musicals [in Poland], so I had to make one with both.”
It’s funny to think that the two will likely soon be sharing shelf space as part of the Criterion Collection – the home video company’s theatrical imprint Janus Films is handling distribution in the States – but somehow fitting since Smoczyńska’s debut may be the most audacious piece of filmmaking to come from the country since Kieslowski tackled the Ten Commandments in 10 hours with “The Decalogue.” While “The Lure” is far from the introspective dramas that the region is known for in approach, the powerful emotions that they arouse are heightened by “The Lure”’s fantastical elements, as Smoczyńska infuses her own upbringing in a dance bar not unlike the one Silver and Gold are the marquee acts for in the film. (Having a pair of sisters who grew up in similar circumstances in Barbara and Zuzanna Wrońska compose the music only deepens the sense of authenticity.)
The musical numbers are grand, but the feelings of the young women as they grapple with “cravings that aren’t so wholesome,” as Gold laments at one point, are conveyed with great intimacy, creating an experience as unforgettable for its portrayal of coming of age as it is for the unusual sight of mermaids feasting on humans. While Smoczyńska was in Los Angeles for AFI Fest, she spoke about how her flights of fancy while directing soap operas led to her pursuing a concept as strange on the surface as “The Lure,” the specificity and care that when into depicting her young heroines on screen and making a film that may have confounded people around her while making it but has enchanted audiences the world over as it arrives in Los Angeles for its full-fledged release.
The legendary Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Holland is listed as an adviser – with a film as unusual as this, what can she possibly tell you?
That’s what you’d think, yes? [laughs] Agnieszka Holland was my mentor because it was my debut, so we have to have such advisers as a supervisor. I remember she told me, “Okay, Agnieszka, I don’t know what to tell you or how to help you, but there is one film about two girls in the Czech [Republic],” and it was really helpful for me. But as you say, everybody didn’t know what to say because it was so absurd. I remember one guy, who was adviser for the script, told us, “Okay, so this mermaid eats people?” Because we didn’t really have scenes, maybe [until] after the second draft where mermaids ate people – we didn’t show it. It was only like you hear them. One day, [someone said], “Well, I would love to see them. How do they do this?” And that’s when we put these scenes in the script.
It’s interesting to hear that since you create an entire sonic language for the film, partly to understand the sisters communicate with each other telepathically. Was this even more sound-oriented at the start?
We started to work with the sound designer after the first draft of the script, so it was just at the beginning of our collaboration. There was a scriptwriter [Robert Bolesto], the two musicians — Barbara Wrońska, who composed the music, and Zuzanna Wrońska, who wrote the lyrics — and also the sound designer. We talked about the film, the style, the story and the tone and after the first draft of the script, the sound designer wrote his own sound script with the scriptwriter. The sound had a huge influence on the film because he knew he had to create a language of sirens, but also combine these two genres. As you could see the film, [there would be a] realistic scene and then a fantastic scene and you have to combine these two to make something very realistic. Before shooting, I treated the whole script as a score because we recorded the script and we put in the songs and I would listen to how the mood is changing [with the songs].
You mentioned at the Q & A at AFI Fest that you have a daughter approaching her teenage years. Has watching her as a young woman going into the world been an influence on the film?
Yeah, of course. When I was working on it, my daughter was nine years old, so she was just a kid and I was thinking [more] about myself and my experience. But the world is not only so cruel to young girls, it’s to everybody. When you are a boy just turning into a man, you can also meet so much cruelty. What I think is the most important is not to lose your inner voice and to remember after initiation, your perspective on the world will change. I don’t take this so personally to my daughter because she’s very responsible and I don’t think such a thing could happen to her, but then I think about young girls and the internet [where] bodies are treated like an item.
When I was thinking about how to show nudity in the film, what was very important was to show the sirens when they are naked, it’s not in a sexual way or to seduce somebody, but I wanted the body to feel natural like an animal. It was very interesting because after the film was released in Poland, there were many articles about how I treat nudity in the film and it was [more] my instinct rather than I want to film something like this because [I wanted to convey] what’s most important is to express yourself, especially because of social media and how you communicate and take pictures of everything. I remember when we were working on [the film], there was a huge group of girls that put tattoos on their body and then took pictures of themselves and put them on the Internet. I wanted to make these mermaids as a metaphor for such girls — sometimes they’re just treated as an item, but [they can reflect contradictions] when you want to be a subject rather than the object. You can want to be a wife, but also be wild. You can be very, very strong and you can be a victim, but also somebody who kills. I think this is great that we can create such heroines, which are taken from Greek mythology.
How did you find these wonderful young actresses to take on such complex roles?
I was looking for them for one year. We were preparing some casting and I found Marta [who plays Silver] first, and then I knew I had to find a second girl who would have chemistry with Marta because it was very important there was a sisterhood. Sisterhood means that there’s a bond between them and they can quarrel and they can fight, but if [something bad] happens to one of them, you can kill somebody. My mom had seven sisters and I grew up in an environment of sirens.
The title sequence is immediately eye-catching and the artist’s work can be seen throughout the film. How did she become such an inspiration?
I worked with this painter from the very beginning because I asked her to paint this mermaid. At the beginning, there was [supposed to be] a narrator that said, “There are two girls who live underwater and one of them is the silver who falls in love with a boy and she took him into the water and she doesn’t know that he can’t breathe.” It was the past of the mermaids and I said, “No, it’s too long, I can’t do this.” So [we said], “Let’s ask Alexandra Waliszewska to to do the opening sequence like opening titles and use her pictures. It was great. The opening sequence gives you the feeling that it will not be realistic, but something like [a fairy tale].
Was there a particularly crazy day of shooting on this?
Every day was so strange for us because every day there was something new. There was not one day which was normal — you had fish tails there or a musical moment [here]. The scene [that] really surprised me because it was hard was when they’re watching television and they [learn] there’s a murderer among them. Silver starts to say, “Okay, why don’t we go out? Why don’t we play frisbee?” Then Golden goes to the room and she starts to [cry] and I remember for me it was very hard to make this because in one scene you have three genres – you have the normal psychological drama, you have a little fantasy because there is the sound [of the sirens] and then when they start to fight – it was so strange to combine all this stuff in four minutes. But I wanted something like that. I directed some TV series and soap operas, and I wanted to have fresh eyes. [I felt] I have to make something that will be fantastic. The experience was so great because this is my first film and the emotion when I was directing was so high, I don’t know how it will be during the next films.
What’s it been like taking this out around the world?
In Poland, the audience was really divided because the distributor promoted this film like a Polish musical and the audience was really confused, especially the old people. I think for Polish viewers, it’s too strange. Because of our heritage, you have very good filmmakers who used to make psychological drama or even mystical, humanistic films.
The [financing process] took me a year-and-a-half, and the Polish Film Institute and National Television gave money and the distributor MG [had a] minimum warranty, so when they saw the film after editing, they were [like], “Oh my God. What will we do with this?” And I remember my producer told me when he saw it, “I’ve got nothing to say because I don’t know what to tell [you].” [laughs] And I remember that he also said, “I really would love to see the face of the guy from National Television when he’s watching this film.” So it was like this, but we just finished editing and after two days, the film was screening at the Gdynia International Film Festival and people really loved it. After Sundance, we got an invitation for [something like] a hundred festivals and it’s really well-received in the U.S. because I think the audience is ready for this because you really like genre films —and this film is a little bit like a new genre.
“The Lure” opens in Los Angeles on March 3rd at the Laemmle NoHo 7, the Ahrya Fine Arts and the Pasadena Playhouse 7, in Pleasantville, New York at the Jacob Burns Film Center, and Denver at the SIE Film Center. It opens in Ithaca, New York at Cineopolis on March 10th.