Call Girl

Call Girl


Reviewed by: Michael Pattison

Even if British audiences weren’t already enthusiastically soaking up Scandinavian exports, including TV series such as The Bridge and The Killing and recent low-key films such as A Hijacking, Call Girl arrives at a particularly pertinent juncture. Set in late-1970s Sweden and telling the story of two young teenage girls being groomed to work as call girls for top politicians, officials and businessmen, the film is a discomfortingly matter-of-fact handling not just of a casually and often aggressively misogynistic culture, but of an entire political and institutional regime that has aided and abetted sexual and sexual child abuse for decades; the film is relevant to any nation whose public broadcasting service is currently digging through its own recently-exposed history of deceit, corruption and cover-ups.

Spanning the five months before what promises to be a scandalous general election and unfolding for the most part through an extended flashback, Call Girl tells of how Iris (Sofia Karemyr) and Sonja (Josefin Asplund) drift into sexual exploitation at the hands of Dagma (Pernilla August), an insidious businesswoman who runs a sex ring for well-to-do male clients, among whom are police and high-ranking ministers. At the same time, young detective John Sandberg (Simon J Berger) is assigned to investigate Dagma, unaware of the extent of her operation.

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For the first half of this 140-minute film, cross-cutting between the two plot strands lends an air of inevitability; when it finally changes its focus – from Iris and Sonja to Sandberg’s pursuit of justice in the face of top-down disapproval from the colleagues who are implicated in his investigation – it does so without really changing gears. Consequently, the film feels as if it might have been trimmed from a serial format.

Perhaps, however, the film’s narrative accessibility and structural familiarity are intended to make its subject matter all the more hitting. And Marietta von Hausswolff von Baumgarten’s script is not without its merits. The film points economically to wider shifts and to deeper malaises: early on we see a character reading a newspaper whose front-page headline reads, “Several types of sexual abuse should be criminalised”, while later in the film we overhear a sex crimes commission drafting a new bill, whose finer points suggest a judicial system that boasts a liberal façade and harmful foundations.

Feature debutant Mikael Marcimain, meanwhile, matches the script’s fine balance between dramatic clarity and the more ambiguous intrigues of a conspiracy thriller with some pinpoint direction – and his performers all excel (as Dagma, August is the standout). Indeed, like the gross procurement by which Dagma grooms Iris and Sonja, Marcimain gives a lengthy lesson in effective understatement. Working with production designers Michael Higgins and Lina Nordqvist, his period detail recalls that of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – which was itself directed by a Swede.

Those scenes in which Iris and Sonja first escape the juvenile home where they live, and are matter-of-factly told to slip out of their clothes by the pimp through whom they will eventually meet Dagma, seem all the more distressing because Marcimain resists sensationalism, eliciting instead delicate turns from Karemyr and Asplund, whose facial and bodily gestures suggest two victims of a world that denies young women the right to a voice. Later, when a would-be court hearing is concluded as abruptly as it has begun, Marcimain delays and ultimately magnifies our outrage by allowing firstly the characters’ confusion to linger.

But the moment that best exemplifies the director’s skill is that in which Sandberg first realises the extent to which his investigation is rubbing superiors the wrong way, when a car smashes into his own: rather than notch up the tension and conclude with a shock, Marcimain shoots from high above, like that detached aerial viewpoint from which David Fincher filmed one of the murder scenes in Zodiac. Like that film, Call Girl avoids bombast only to mourn the fact that it has to settle on a compromised and rather bittersweet resolution.

Reviewed on: 18 Jun 2013
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Two young teenage girls are caught up in a sex scandal that goes to the heart of the Swedish government. Based on a true story.
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Director: Mikael Marcimain

Writer: Marietta von Hausswolff von Baumgarten

Starring: Sofia Karemyr, Simon J Berger, Josefin Asplund, Pernilla August, Anders Beckman, Sven Nordin, David Dencik, Hanna Ullerstam, Sverrir Gudnason

Year: 2012

Runtime: 140 minutes

Country: Sweden, Norway, Finland, Ireland


EIFF 2013
EastEnd 2013

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