“Would you eat him?”
Not all fairy tales must be for children as their lessons resonate with ages young and old. There’s a reason many original forms of such tales deliver more blood and horror than Disney counterparts—that sense of fear allowing adults to find dramatic value and kids a scare to remember the moral as more than cutesy romantic bliss. And as far as mythical creatures go, the idea that they can and will project their dominance upon humanity is natural. Just as we’ve taken over the mantel of “top of the food chain,” they have the capacity to wreak havoc and steal it away. To believe mermaids are simply figures in the sea singing pretty songs is but a softening of lore. Their voices are weapons, their hunger insatiable.
Or at least some versions are like the Eastern European water nymph Rusalki. Here are female spirits trapped in the water, products of murder and/or suicide. They become Sirens, their songs luring unsuspecting men from shore to wrap their tails around and pull into the sea’s depths. Versions such as these possess texture that Ariel’s yearning to be a human does not. There’s a reason why they are what they are. There are rules dictating what they can and cannot do. And they are as much or more of a threat to man than we are to them. They wield a power over us forged through vengeance. Their beauty is a warning, their actions the result of our weakness and greed to take them as our own.
This is the type of supernatural creation Polish director Agnieszka Smoczynska and writer Robert Bolesto have embraced with her feature-length debut Córki dancingu [The Lure]. There’s a sense of nightmarish terror in their mermaids’ existence as displayed by the opening scene of young Golden (Michalina Olszanska) and Silver (Marta Mazurek) beckoning to a drunken drummer (Andrzej Konopka) and bass player (Jakub Gierszal) in the sand. These sisters call to those men with promises of not eating them if their invitation is accepted. Golden and Silver seek entry onshore to have some fun before journeying to America, but they aren’t to be taken at innocently beautiful face value. Mermaids are mermaids. Konopka and Gierszal might be entranced, but their cabaret act’s singer (Kinga Preis) isn’t. She screams in horror.
It’s a wonderfully constructed prologue juxtaposing the girls’ youthful vitality against humans beholden to over-indulgence. The evening night dampens the colors, the beach anything but attractive enough to earn such melodies. This is the true dynamic between their two groups, one where all control lies in the mermaids’ court to elicit screams above acquiescence. What follows is more akin to enchantment, a bright, flashy façade of success and acclaim that belies the reality of life as a nightclub’s house band peddling skin above talent. And the manager (Zygmunt Malanowicz) can sense something awry even if the metaphor is hardly subtle. He smells fish while Preis and the boys perform. He smells the girls holed up in the dressing room and their “unique” qualities seduce him like the rest.
The question then becomes whether this artifice will consume the girls too. They obviously have a plan with this being a brief respite, but lust often has a way of transforming into love. Whereas a broken heart is generally our outcome for things turning sour, mermaids must be more careful. If they fall for a human, it’s an imprint for life. If he marries someone else instead, she has no choice but to eat his heart or turn into sea foam. Golden and Silver are fully aware of this, but the former proves more pragmatic in actions than the latter. She’ll take pleasure in the attention of mortals, feeding or screwing to get her fill. Silver is conversely a romantic currently caught by humanity’s devastating hook.
Their journey towards destruction—theirs or ours is the question—comes to us as a fascinating genre hybrid of gruesome eviscerations, strobe-lighted rock numbers with mermaids clad in leather (as they dry out their tales disappear into legs, although sexual organs are non-existent), ballads accompanied by stripteases, and fantastical visions of love underwater. The town embraces the girls with adulation—earned or forced, we’re never quite certain. And their sexual allure can’t help but ensnare both Konopka and Gierszal. Heck, even Preis dreams about their relationship being one more permanent than reality allows as her maternal instincts are preyed upon with their hypnotizing scent. The girls could have whatever they want and that in turn provides their biggest problem. Want and need are two different things.
The Lure is less about the connection between mermaids and humans than sisters coming-of-age. There’s a struggle between what they are and what they could be, the excitement of control pushing them into situations that risk leaving them with none. It’s not hard to see their surrogate family’s fear as they also take advantage of the girls’ success (the latter notion mirroring an Italian film from 2016 titled Indivisible). A punk singer merman (Marcin Kowalczyk‘s Tryton) who has also embraced life above ground serves as a cautionary tale and voice of reason, but it’s easy to dismiss his wisdom as the fears of legend they don’t have concrete evidence of being true. Golden isn’t willing to take the chance that he’s correct. Silver can’t chance not taking it.
So there’s a lot more to Smoczynska’s debut than stunning technical achievements. Whether the gorgeous nightlife capturing the sheen of sex onstage against the mundane off or the brilliant use of practical effects to ensure we never forget these girls are monsters, we’re brought into a world created of a singular vision. But the characters populating it are just as intriguing thanks to a devotion to mythology and an authenticity wherein moments of emotional pain outnumber those of pure happiness. We see the mermaids as animals and innocents, predators and victims. We see the humans under their spell until enough fear breaks them free into heroin-level withdrawal. It may be a fairy tale, but its success is being bound to reality. I can think of no better compliment.
 Michalina Olszanska as Gold
 Michalina Olszanska as Gold, Marta Mazurek as Silver,
Kinga Preis as Wokalistka Krysia
 Marta Mazurek as Silver, Jakub Gierszal as Mietek