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Lure, The

The Criterion Collection // Unrated // October 10, 2017
List Price: $39.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Francis Rizzo III | posted September 28, 2017 | E-mail the Author
In 10 Words or Less
Poland's first musical is gloriously weird

Reviewer's Bias*
Loves: The Criterion Collection, musicals, artsy films
Likes: Cult films
Dislikes: Plot holes
Hates: Creeps, feeling lost in a story

The Movie
Adapting The Little Mermaid into a dark, visually-experimental horror/musical would be a daunting task for any filmmaker, but to do it as your feature debut is even harder. For Agnieszka Smoczyńska, it ended up being the perfect fit though, as she managed to tackle the concept with true style, creating a unique and fascinating film that, though staying mostly true to Hans Christian Andersen's original story, is about as far removed from Disney's The Little Mermaid as possible (even if, at one point, one of the film's mermaids is running a fork through her hair.)

As Córki dancingu/The Lure starts, a family of musicians enjoying a night on the beach encounter a pair of mermaids--Golden (Michalina Olszanska) and Silver (Marta Mazurek)--and quickly fall under their spell. The musicians bring the sisters to the adult nightclub they work in, where they are hired by the club owner, as a combination freak show/striptease/musical act that wows crowds. Problems start though when Silver falls for the group's guitarist (Jakub Gierszal), and is willing to forsake her mermaid status to be with him (as he can't find himself attracted to her natural form.) However, if she does, and he doesn't love her back, she will cease to exist. Oh, and the mermaids are cannibals who subsist on human hearts, and Golden still enjoys the hunt, putting her at odds with her sister. Obviously, things aren't exactly peachy in this world.

Though the mermaid element is obviously a huge and fantastical factor, The Lure is somewhat biographical, influenced by the childhood nightclub experiences of Smoczyńska and her musical collaborators Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska (the sister act Ballady i Romanse), while also using the mermaids' story to explore the complications that accompany female sexual awakening and the dangers of changing oneself for others. As a result, it feels deeper and more personal than a simple adaptation of the Andersen tale, mainly because it gets most of the source material right (especially the awful, inexplicable rules that govern the mermaids' lives.) As Silver, Mazurek is the epitome of innocence, even while embracing her burgeoning womanhood, making a connection that draws the audience in the same way the sisters draw in their victims.

The problem is, the film is hyperambitious, trying to cram a lot of material into a scant 92 minutes, and sometimes, it just doesn't make sense. There's an entire sequence that, though filmed beautifully and interesting to watch, has no explanation that I could find, even after several viewings, involving a character that seems to have never been introduced, while having no noticeable effect on the overall plot. And it's not an inconsequential scene that passes by quickly either, as the musical number runs nearly seven minutes long. Though this is the most egregious example, there are others, as the film doesn't always feel compelled to provide connective tissue between scenes, and will drop in cutaways about secondary characters that seem to exist simply because they would look good on-screen (which, if we're being honest, is not a terrible tack, considering the results Smoczyńska and her DP, Kuba Kijowski, get with the camera.)

Also working against this film--at least for English-speaking audiences--is the language it was shot in, as this is the first musical to emerge from Poland. Perhaps the songs in The Lure are great to those who can understand them in their native state, but in musicals songs have to serve two purposes: sound great and tell the story. Well, these songs may be wonderful in Polish (and the music, heavy with synth sounds, is absolutely great) but when translated they lose almost all the rhymes and the language becomes excessively flowery, if not nonsensical. (Anime theme songs suffer a similar fate.) You'll certainly get the gist of the story, but it doesn't have the same effect it would have in your native tongue. Fortunately, the visuals more than pick up the slack to make sure the experience is worth watching either way.

The Disc
The Lure (spine number 896) arrives on one Blu-ray disc in a clear keepcase with a fold-out pamphlet. The classically clean Criterion menu provides the choice to watch the film, select scenes, adjust languages and check out the special features. There are no audio options, but subtitles are available in English.

The Quality
Considering there was never a frame of film utilized from the shooting of this film to the Blu-ray disc and that the DP oversaw it, you could expect that the 2.39:1, 1080p, AVC-encoded transfer for The Lure would look great, and it certainly does, showing off all the beauty of Smoczyńska's visual artistry with an appropriate palette that captures the film's gorgeous variety of hues wonderfully. There's so much going on in this image of this film, from the animation at the film's beginning to the fantastic visual effect that is the mermaid tail and the moody lighting and intricately designed frames. With deep black levels and solid detail, it all looks tremendous and betrays no problems with defects or digital distractions.

The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track here is most notable when it boosts the film's many musical numbers via the side and rear channels, resulting in a rich-sounding mix, with clear dialogue making a home in the front of the room and enhancements to the effects and tunes. Sound is an intrinsic part of the film, with impressively layered design that ties into the story, and combines with the unique visuals to create a really interesting experience.

The Extras
First up is the 41:11 "Off the Hook", a look at the making of the film through interviews with the director, her cinematographer, her lead actresses and the screenwriter, as well as the composers, the sound designer and choreographer. Presented in Polish with English subtitles, the provide plenty of info about the personal nature of the plot, the time frame it's set in, and inspirations for the look and story, along with discussion of the unique sound-focused process used in developing the film, the casting and training (including the need to become comfortable with nudity) and the film's visual style. Shy of a full commentary, this is a great presentation for those interested in how this unusual film came together.

There are six deleted scenes available to watch, running 17:55 in all, which include alternate opening and closing scenes (both of which reveal more detail than is necessary), as well as a cut song that's worth a look. The longest deleted scene adds a small bit of info that adds to understanding one of the film's most confusing scenes, but you're still left in the dark.

Two of Smoczyńska's student short films are included: the 2007 drama Aria Diva (31:20) and the 2010 documentary Viva Maria! (17:08). Watching these shorts, you'd have no doubt you're seeing the early work of a true filmmaking talent, as both movies look polished and stylish, as she tackles two different genres with seeming ease, making for a pair of fascinating studies of obsession. Ignore the idea of a student film, as these are anything but amateur.

The extras conclude with the pamphlet, which includes, alongside the disc and movie details, an essay by author Angela Lovell, who overs an overview and observations on the film.


The Bottom Line
The Lure is far from a perfect film, as the thread gets lost at times, but Smoczyńska's debut feature offers an intriguing viewing experience, even if foreign-language musicals lose a bit in translation. As is usually the case, Criterion has delivered the film is beautiful condition, and has added on a nice package of behind-the-scenes info and additional films, making this an easy recommendation, even if the film will definitely divide audiences.

Francis Rizzo III is a native Long Islander, where he works in academia. In his spare time, he enjoys watching hockey, writing and spending time with his wife, daughter and puppy.

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*The Reviewer's Bias section is an attempt to help readers use the review to its best effect. By knowing where the reviewer's biases lie on the film's subject matter, one can read the review with the right mindset.

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