A Horror Film With Mermaids Makes a Big … Splash
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because she’s fishing for international audiences, and might just reel them in.
It’s dark, and a family of three is sitting along the beach. Two mermaids swim up and seem puzzled by the humans. “Help us come ashore. No need to fear,” the young swimmers sing. “We won’t eat you,” they promise — a telltale sign that things are about to get fishy.
And with that, 38-year-old Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Smoczynska’s musical drama, The Lure, introduces viewers to an entirely new 1980s Poland, where song, drink and legendary sea creatures reign under a Communist moon. The 92-minute affair with debauchery delivers sex, murder, music and dancing while harkening back to a recent history — Smoczynska’s Soviet-ruled childhood. As a young female voice of Polish cinema, Smoczynska has already achieved a great deal. This feature film, her first, premiered in the World Dramatic Competition at Sundance in January, winning rave reviews and the Special Jury Award for Unique Vision and Design, while her other projects have netted awards at Polish film festivals.
It’s high time for Polish filmmakers to break with the historic mold and lure international fans.
When we meet at Sundance, I’m struck by Smoczynska’s electric green eyes. She couldn’t be more excited to be in the U.S., where she’s been publicizing The Lure alongside its two very human, tail-free stars. “We’re like mermaids here,” she says, noting how unique it is to bring a Polish musical to America.
Breaking out of the Polish market is rare, says cinema scholar Michael Goddard. Poland’s box office market is relatively modest, offering just three screens per 100,000 people, compared to America’s 14, and taking in a meager $168 million in 2014, compared to North America’s $10 billion–plus in revenue. So appealing to an international audience is important. Most Polish films never make it over the border, but those that do tend to focus on World War II or its impact on Poland, like Ida, which received the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 2015. Typical Polish cinema today, according to Ewa Mazierska, a professor of contemporary cinema at the University of Central Lancashire in the U.K., is often nationalistic and “parochial,” not just compared to Hollywood, but also to the Czech Republic, Romania or Greece.
Before the collapse of the USSR, pre-1989, cinematic competition was less of a problem. Most of Poland’s cinema between the ’50s and the ’80s depicted society’s struggles, while only a minority were “surrealistic and creative, and sometimes erotic,” Goddard says. So it’s high time for Polish filmmakers to break with the historic mold and lure international fans.
Smoczynska seems to be off to a good start. The Lure blends horror and a musical — two distinctly American genres — into something truly unique. Poland’s only ever produced a couple musicals, Smoczynska says, noting how everyone said she was crazy for trying to make one. While filming, Smoczynska watched American classics such as Chicago and studied the techniques of American modern photographer Nan Goldin. It’s a fascination she credits to her childhood, when America “was like El Dorado.” She also found inspiration in Picasso’s “Guernica,” a painting that deconstructs both conventions and a violent past.
When Smoczynska was 5, she dreamed of being a singer and spent much of her time in two restaurants managed by her mother — a childhood setting she’s used as the backdrop for The Lure. By age 12, she was sneaking downstairs into the disco part of one restaurant, where adults wore shiny clothes and drank Coca-Cola while musicians played Western tunes. The vibe was far from the stereotypical gray of Communist life; it was full of “erotic energy,” she says. Smoczynska fixes her eyes on her hands as she talks of how her father, an accountant, died of cancer when she was just 14. She ended up largely alone in her parents’ flat while her brother moved to London to earn money and her mother ran the restaurants. That same year, she took a film class and saw movies by legendary directors such as Michelangelo Antonioni, Federico Fellini and Akira Kurosawa. From then on, she was hooked.
But her continued success is far from assured. While Smoczynska’s had support from the Polish Film Institute, which allowed her a bit of creative freedom, funding is still hard to secure. Wild creativity also has its drawbacks: Some find her work strange, even deranged. Slashfilm, for example, criticized The Lure, saying it has too many moving parts and “never really comes together in a way that makes a profound impact.” The other risk, at least for Polish cinema? Losing Smoczynska altogether. Goddard says the Polish brain drain has ensured that “a lot of filmmakers are in exile and produce their work elsewhere.”
Smoczynska remains cautiously optimistic about making a big splash overseas, but she’s also managing her expectations. The young director knows it’s an initiation and that some first times — like losing one’s virginity — can be a letdown. So is she disappointed with her international debut? “Not yet,” she says with a smile.