Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Call Girl

CALL GIRL           C  
Sweden  Ireland  Norway  Finland  (140 mi)  2012  d:  Mikael Marcimain

While there could be an engrossing story here, sexual intrigue stripped from the headlines, inspired by a real-life scandal in the 1970’s when a madam named Doris Hopp was convicted of running a prostitution ring servicing clients in the highest levels of the Swedish government, but this rather uninspiring, conventionally made thriller is not the one to do it.  Apparently first-time feature director Mikael Marcimain has spent his career making Swedish television mini-series, which is exactly what this film resembles in every respect, where every artistic choice has been compromised.  Instead of the bombshell journalistic exposé it pretends to be, it’s little more than a rehashing of unproven allegations, making little distinction between what’s real and alleged, becoming a tepid, overlong, though often sexually explicit, television drama.  Outside of the vice detective John Sandberg (Simon J. Berger), a surveillance expert whose dogged pursuit was continually sabotaged by the higher-ups within his own police department who were aiding and abetting by providing a buffer or safe zone for political heavyweights, the rest of the casting choices are all questionable, including Pernilla August as the deviously manipulating madam.  If she had just played a behind-the-scenes, hard-nosed business entrepreneur, her savvy smarts would have been perfect for the role, but her less than flattering naked appearances as a sexually alluring object of desire were sadly misguided.  Television is the optimum medium through which political views are continuously expressed, where there’s a constant dialogue taking place with the Swedish public about liberalizing sex crimes, including flowery speeches by incumbent Prime Minister Olof Palme, one of a continuing line of forty years of unbroken rule by the same party, and also his opponent Thorbjörn Fälldin in the upcoming election.  A blatant theme of sexual permissiveness runs throughout the film, so holier than thou and morally reprimanding that in hindsight it has a scolding “I told you so” quality about it.  Deeply submerged to the point of omission is the fact that at the time of the scandal, prostitution in Sweden was legal, where the the underlying political concern wasn’t sex per se, but politicians openly sharing security secrets with the same prostitutes that also serviced foreign embassies.

Set in Stockholm in 1976, the narration unfolds using a two-tiered approach, a secret surveillance operation conducted by a mousy Sandberg that eventually infiltrates the corridors of political power, and two 14-year old girls, Iris Dahl (Sofia Karemyr) and her cousin Sonja (Josefin Asplund), where much of the film is seen through the vantage point of Iris’s youthful rebellion, including her intoxicating allure into such a profitable business operation, as well as the often life-threatening difficulty getting out.  Disowned by her own mother after her seventh runaway, she’s handed over to the welfare division that places her in a youth home run with the naïve belief that all these kids need is a good hug.  Something of a snot-nosed kid, arrogant and deeply unappreciative, she ignores every rule set out for her, but what’s not immediately clear is why she doesn’t run away again, as there’s no real incentive to stay there, lingering far too long in this early segment where it’s clear Karemyr is a pretty girl but a clueless actress.  Things perk up once her cousin joins her, but she’s an even worse actress, where the two sneak out together nearly every night.  Following the lead of two other girls from the group home, they get involved in the sex business, where initially it just involves dancing topless, plied with all the alcohol they can drink, something they find silly and amusing.  August plays Dagmar Glans, who along with her protective muscle Glenn (Sven Nordin) monopolize the high end sex trade, taking a particular liking to Iris, quickly spoiling her with compliments, earning her trust, as Iris becomes one of her most favored clients, largely due to her underage status.  A rift inevitably develops between the two girls, as Iris is the golden girl, treated like royalty by Glans, where money just flows into their hands, more than they know what to do with, leaving Sonja a bit jealous, with a growing disinterest in the demeaning sexualization of the trade.  When Iris mentions an interest in both of them getting out, Glans immediately sets her straight with a quick slap in the mouth, hinting that the last girl who made similar suggestions accidentally fell off a Finnish ferry and drowned.  Instead Glans just sends her on more exclusive assignments where Iris is the talk of the town, expressed in a neverending dream-like orgy of drugs, sex, alcohol, and choice disco sounds from Abba to the BeeGees and George McCrae - Rock Your Baby - YouTube (6:01).

The police procedural aspect of the film is far more muddied and easily the most disappointing aspect of the film, despite the efforts of Berger who really nails his role as the persistently hounding, eavesdropping ear to Glans’s phone calls, taking surreptitious photos of her clients, and the only man in the film who has a clear idea of his investigation’s impact, as it’s the kind of scandal that would bring down a government, linking underage girls to the Justice Minister, a Finnish ambassador, and two Prime Ministers, including Olof Palme (murdered in 1986), whose family sued the filmmaker for “gross defamation of character,” charges that were subsequently dropped by the current Justice Minister.  While Marcimain paints the political moral hypocrisy with broad strokes, he is remiss in providing facts, incriminating details, and linking evidence, and instead stains the entire era as one of outward decadence and perverse overindulgence, where the film only goes so far as to suggest this version of events “may” have happened.  While Marietta von Hausswolff von Baumgarten's script is clearly slanted towards the viewpoints of the young girls, their version of events has never been proven, only insinuated, which makes much of this material feel exploitive.  Marcimain only worsens the efforts with an overly loud and aggressive music score, the kind heard in exploitation films.  It’s not surprising that Sandberg comes across as the only sympathetic adult, one of the few fully developed characters, as he’s the only one fighting against the corrupt conspiracy of power that continually hides behind a shield of mafia tactics by destroying evidence and murdering potential witnesses, never prosecuting anyone except Glans, an easy target since they have her on tape.  The rest of the entire field of politicians are merely cardboard cutouts, one indistinguishable from the next, deadening the interest and overall impact, which comes to a giant thud at the end.  Instead of the great American paranoid political conspiracy thrillers of the 70’s which this attempts to emulate, like Alan J. Pakula’s KLUTE (1971) and THE PARALLAX VIEW (1974) or Roman Polanski’s CHINATOWN (1974), all of which escalate the dramatic tension building towards a momentous event, this film lacks the intelligence and sophisticated nuance and simply fizzles out at the end, a major disappointment and let down, suggesting perhaps they might have approached this from a different angle, as all the intrigue and suspense simply evaporates into thin air. 


  1. May I ask where you saw the film; and where did you get the part of the title in brackets? "Elokuva" is Finnish, meaning "a/the movie" - however, Call Girl is a completely Swedish film apart from financing. Thus, "(Elokuva)" is misplaced, and I have not seen it used anywhere else.

    Your review - a foreigner's view - made for a very interesting reading. In Sweden and Finland, where Olof Palme is a legendary figure, Call Girl has mostly garnered excellent reviews. I have not seen the film, but your well balanced opinion certainly casts a welcome new light on the praised film. Many of your points - especially those concerning the visual quality - sound very familiar...

  2. Hello Anton.

    Thanks for your clarification of the incorrect title (which I've corrected), where I believe I picked up the bracketed title from a foreign language website containing one of the photos used. I saw the film here in Chicago as part of a European Union film festival, and when I went back to the original written material there was no accompanying bracketed title, so it was removed.

    You wouldn't think either Olof Palme or Thorbjörn Fälldin would remain legendary after seeing this film, as both are accused of consorting with underage girls, where their contribution to the moral hypocrisy of the era (according to the film) is indisputable. Throughout the entire film one assumes there is corroborating evidence for what is depicted onscreen, as one of the earliest sequences indicates the film is inspired by real events. Having seen the film, however, that's putting it loosely, where it's also entirely possible none of these events ever occurred. So under the circumstances, the police procedural aspect of the film detailing the specifics of the alleged crimes never works at all, as it's highly speculative. Maybe that can work in a film like David Fincher's Zodiac, which makes it clear all along that the actual serial killer was never found, so the meticulous investigative detail allows the audience to make their own intelligent choices as to who they thought "might be" the best suspect, presenting the audience with an exasperatingly realistic and thoroughly detailed journalistic exposé of the known information available to the police. In Zodiac it remains a mystery, while Call Girl is utter speculation.