Babycall: Film Review

Babycall Noomi Rapace 2011
Check the children, but don’t answer that (baby) phone!

Norwegian filmmaker Pal Seltaune’s psychological thriller stars "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo"'s Noomi Rapace as a mother trying to protect her son from an allegedly abusive father.

ROME — Any parent who’s ever heard strange noises emanating from their baby monitor should appreciate the premise of Norwegian filmmaker Pal Seltaune’s psychological thriller, Babycall. Starring Noomi Rapace (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo­) as a mother trying to protect her son from an allegedly abusive father, the film offers up fine performances and some low-key scares, but never quite satisfies as either a B-level chiller or as a phantasmagorical study of one woman’s gradual unraveling. Still the pitch is pure horror fodder, and one could envision a Hollywood remake that ratchets up the tension while cutting away the arty excess. Worldwide ancillary should outweigh limited Euro theatrical.

In a grim housing block on the outskirts of Oslo, Anna (Rapace) sequesters herself and her 8-year-old boy, Anders (Velte Qvenild Werring), from a violent father whom we only glimpse briefly in an old photo. When a pair of social workers (Stig Amdam, Maria Bock) force her to let Anders sleep in his own bedroom, she buys a baby monitor from a nearby electronics store, making friends with the morose salesman, Helge (Kristoffer Joner). But when Anna hears screams from the monitor that aren’t, in fact, coming from Anders, she begins to worry that the two are not quite alone.

So goes the set-up, and what would normally be an excuse for plenty of easy frights – picture When A Stranger Calls meets Paranormal Activity 2 – instead turns into a surreal, somewhat plodding investigation into Anna’s damaged psyche. Clues are dropped that her claims of child abuse are not entirely justified, and a series of dreamlike sequences (including a hauntingly executed switcheroo whereby a lake transforms into a parking lot) reveal her point-of-view to be anything but trustworthy.

Director of the 1997 Cannes Critics’ Week prizewinner Junk Mail, Sletaune attempts a “tweener” that’s half-horror, half-art house, and as such is not exactly convincing. He finds clever ways to build suspense via the titular electronic device, and the morose suburban setting and prison-like housing project are expertly used for atmosphere. But there are too few genuine scares. The third act feels especially lengthy as Anna’s madness takes front billing to what could otherwise have been a nail-biting enterprise.

Both Rapace and Joner (who starred in Sletaune’s Next Door) provide solid, well-tempered turns, and their relationship presents a downbeat portrait of two people forever damaged by the violence of others. Icy wide-screen cinematography by John Andreas Andersen (Headhunters) works better in daylight than in tungsten, where the HD seems to skew towards the video side. Spare production design from Roger Rosenberg goes a long way with only one apartment and a handful of props.

Venue: Rome Film Festival

Production companies: 4½ Fiksjon, Pandora Film, BOB Film

Cast: Noomi Rapace, Kristoffer Joner, Velte Qvenild Werring, Stig Amdam, Maria Bock

Director/screenwriter: Pal Sletaune

Producer: Turid Oversveen

Executive producers: Marius Holst, Karin Julsrud, Hakon Overas, Pal Sletaune

Director of photography: John Andreas Andersen

Production designer: Roger Rosenberg

Music: Fernando Velazquez

Costume designer: Ellen Ystehede

Editor: Jon Endre Mork

Sales Agent: The Match Factory

No rating, 96 minutes