Ordinarily, the fun challenge of reviewing a highly fucked-up movie that does things movies tend not to is to figure out how to describe it in a way that sounds appealing. The Lure has already taken care of that. This is a Polish musical-horror film set in a tacky disco/strip club in the 1980s - a setting amply demonstrated in the songs - where a pair of mermaid sisters get jobs as backup singers to the middle-aged diva who dominates the club's shows, as cover for their hunt for human victims to murder, so that they can devour hearts and remain in their human form. This becomes complicated when one of them falls in love with the prettyboy bassist in the club band. It has some startling, arresting compositions and impressively expressionistic lighting, excellently squirmy gore effects and mermaid prosthetics, strong feminist themes, fun music, and its leads spend a majority of their screen time topless. I am sure that there exists in this world viewers for whom there is nothing in all of this, though I genuinely don't know if I can name one.

So with all that in the bank, it ought to be at least the best film of the decade, maybe even the history of sound cinema, right? Alas, it is merely very damn good. I blame the films harried second half. Director Agnieszka Smoczyńska (making a very assured feature debut) and writer Robert Bolesto (who's written two other features since The Lure, but prior to this only had one film under his belt, Hardkor Disko, and I defy you to tell me that you're not at least mildly interested in a film with that title) play a very dangerous game throughout the movie, ruthlessly shearing out ever last little molecule of fluff from their script, so that there is virtually no connective tissue between scenes; we can pretty quickly surmise what has happened in the gaps, but fairly major plot events, like how the mermaids Golden (Michalina Olszańska) and Silver (Marta Mazurek) get a job at the nightclub, are sped through or ignored entirely. Everybody knows they're mermaids, and nobody finds this particularly strange, though the bassist, Mietek (Jakub Gierszał) does remain disgusted by thought of hooking up with a human-fish hybrid. It's palpably the case that huge parts of the story simply aren't there, as the film instead pursues a strategy of giving us all of the sensory stimulation and moments of acute psychological strain on the sisters, rather than neatly and directly letting us know what exactly the hell is happening.

For a while, that's an energizing, exciting way to advance through the plot, though at a certain point, the filmmakers starting trying to excise too much. It shifts at a certain point from skipping ahead by hours and days to skipping ahead by weeks and months, and it becomes, I would say, the wrong kind of disorienting. Smoczyńska never eases up on the visual energy, so at the very least, even as it becomes hectic and confusing, The Lure remains a terrific collection of weird and startling and emotionally invigorating images.

And there are some very damn exciting images to be had. The film's nods towards body horror are obvious: the mermaids switch between featureless human lower halves and impressively realised fish tails, all slime and scales. Plus, the film is at its soul an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Mermaid", and that does mean a scene where Silver swaps out her inconsistent lower half for proper human legs (and proper human genitals), thanks to a surgery scene that holds very little back from the viewer.

But even more than its few (but potent!) dashes of horror, the really extraordinary visuals are in the film's musical numbers, staged with crisp symmetry and flat blocking, as the club's lead singer Krysia (Kinga Preis) stares directly into the camera lens. It's a deliberately anti-spectacular way of presenting the in-film performances, and it bleeds out into other aspects of the film as well; The Lure has an awful lot of people staring directly in the camera, while positioned in the dead center of frame. It's both a distancing effect (it calls attention to the construction of the movie) and an intimate gesture, making the characters' sung words feel more like a confessional directly to the viewer. It's a simple thing, and not particularly original, but it works quite well at presenting a certain feeling of theatricalised psychology.

And then, often in concert with these direct-address musical numbers, comes the colored lighting; the whole world bending and warping to evoke the fairy tale trappings of the story in blue-green hues (it occurs to me only as I write this that this is one of many things that The Lure does the same as the later The Shape of Water, and I would go so far as to say that The Lure does all of them better). It's pure, ungainly artifice, turning the world into a dreamy spread of unreal but highly vivid spaces defined entirely by means of certain colors splay the characters; moods and unspoken thoughts right there in the middle of the wall.

The film uses all this not purely for the sake of creating atmosphere and mood; it's all part of a pretty accessible, largely sturdy metaphor about puberty, female sexuality, and male revulsion at the same. And I'm not typically much of a fan of overt symbolism in movies, but in this case it works particularly well for a bunch of different reasons: one is that fairy tales in general have a whiff of symbolism and "The Little Mermaid" positively reeks of it, and it's neat to see the film almost perfectly invert the moral universe of Andersen; another is that the actors, particularly Mazurek, are very good at playing their characters as a collection of essentialised emotions, so they already seem more like stand-ins for perspectives rather than specific individuals; yet another is that The Lure isn't just about its symbolism; as I understand it, Smoczyńska was primarily interested in it as a story of young women asserting their sexual selves, while Bolesto was mostly paying tribute to the club scene of his youth, and to a few women he knew in particular.

This last division is particularly important, since part of what makes The Lure so delightful is that it can be so many things all at once: Smoczyńska gets her psychological piece, Bolesto gets his snapshot of an era, and somebody like me gets the brightly colored, musically infectious body horror fantasy that I didn't know I wanted this badly. Wins all around, and if the film is too motherfucking strange and twisted and kinky to have much in the way of proper critical acclaim, I am happy to say that warts and all, this is one of the 2017 releases in the United States that I will keep closest to my heart.