‘The Charmer’: Film Review | San Sebastian 2017
Milad Alami’s debut, which played in San Sebastian's New Directors sidebar, charts the struggles of an Iranian immigrant to make a place for himself in Denmark.
The title of Milad Alami’s striking debut The Charmer might describe the film itself. And on the surface it is indeed a gentle, well-mannered and elegant affair, but its caustic undertow, which becomes increasingly apparent, ends up making the viewer angry about a world that seems hell-bent on finding divisions where there need be none.
Tracing the struggles of Esmail, an Iranian immigrant in Denmark, to become a Danish citizen by using the perhaps misguided strategy of sleeping with many women, The Charmer is an elegantly reflective and uncomfortable denouncement of the life Esmail has had inflicted upon him — a distorted, inverted life in which the shattering phrase, “I can’t marry you, because I love you,” rings horribly and absolutely true. Its subtle take on key contemporary themes suggests that The Charmer should be capable of seducing further festivals.
Leaving aside a rather shocking event in the first two minutes, life in Denmark would initially seem to be treating Esmail (Ardalan Esmaili) well: He dresses with style, picks up women in abundance and sleeps with them, sometimes in their luxury apartments. But we soon realize that Esmail’s trying to sleep his way into Danish citizenship via the hearts and bedrooms of his supposed lovers, selling himself as a little bit exotic and different.
By day, things are more prosaic: Esmail does home removals and communicates with his family back home via Skype calls which continually, and symbolically, break off, so that even the words "I miss you" float off, unheard, into cyberspace.
Esmail’s is not an easy route to citizenship, and right from the start, having hit a bureaucratic brick wall, he’s dangerously close to being thrown out of the country. It’s typical of the film’s laudable evenhandedness, though, that the bureaucrat dealing with Esmail is no monster, but apparently quite reasonable. (That said, Alami's portrayal of the country shows Denmark to be not quite the socialist-liberal paradise we all assume it to be.)
Esmail’s dark good looks, charm and little-boy-lost air, all effectively rendered by Esmaili and enhanced by the character’s less-than-perfect Danish, do take him some way toward his goal: Nobody can spot an unhappy Danish woman like Esmail can. Until one night he comes across the beautiful Iranian Sara (Iranian singer Soho Rezanejad, a striking screen presence) while about to hit on Sara’s friend. Sara knows Esmail’s game and is not having any of it — but soon, admittedly somewhat unaccountably, Sara herself starts to fall for him. The slow, cat-and-mouse buildup of their relationship is done with great dexterity, and before too long, Esmail is being invited to a party at the large home where Sara lives with her mother, a famous Iranian singer.
These are not the sort of people with whom Esmail would be hanging around were he back home, and suddenly, though he’s in the bosom of the Iranian community in Denmark, he finds himself once again quite literally an outsider, in ways he could never have anticipated. Add to this the fact that the poor chap is being hounded by the former husband of a conquest, and his fragile world starts to fall apart.
The title word "charmer" suggests an immoral playboy, someone prepared to sacrifice others on the altar of his own ambition. Circumstances have forced Esmail into this role — one which, in different hands, could have played as comedy — and his strategy will have indeed have tragic consequences.
But Ardalan Esmaili also imbues the character with a haunted fragility, never allowing the viewer to forget that he’s the victim of an unjust system which, having consigned him to second-class citizenship, is determined to keep him there. Crucially, audience sympathy is thus retained for a character whose motives could too easily be seen as selfish.
Martin Dirkov’s score is spare, plangent string-based fare, in line with lenser Sophia Olsson’s austere, sometimes claustrophobic and always tonally muted visuals.
Production companies: Good Company Films
Cast: Ardalan Esmaili, Soho Rezanejad, Susan Taslimi, Lars Brygmann
Director: Milad Alami
Screenwriters: Milad Alami, Ingeborg Topsoe
Producer: Stinna Lassen
Co-producers: Mimmi Spang, Rebecka Lafrenz, Tomas Eskilsson
Director of photography: Sophia Olsson
Production Designer: Sabine Hviid
Editor: Olivia Neergaard-Holm
Composer: Martin Dirkov
Venue: San Sebastian International Film Festival (New Directors)
Sales: Alma Cinema