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Call Girl

Sweden (2012) Dir. Mikael Marcimain

1976 and a general election is looming, but while many of the parties are paying lip service to the voters about sexual equality and reforms in policies,  the candidates and high level ministers are indulging in illicit activities with girls supplied by notorious brothel madam Dagmar Glans (Pernilla August).

Meanwhile teenage tearaway Iris Dahl (Sofia Karemyr) is sent away to a juvenile home where she meets up with her cousin Sonja (Josefin Asplund) and the two slip away at night for some fun. Through a tenuous acquaintance they are introduced to Dagmar who takes a shine to Iris, setting her on the road to becoming a popular prostitute on her books.

While this may read as fabulous plot and could easily have been an episode of Wallander or any other Nordic Noir drama, this is in fact based on a real life Bordellhärvan scandal that rocked Sweden in the 1970’s. Naturally the names and timelines have been changed to protect the (not so) innocent although this wasn’t enough for the family of the then incumbent Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme.

His son sued the filmmakers over the allegation that Palme partook in the underage prostitution ring. He lost but they agreed to cut the offending scenes and all mentions of their respective character. For the Swedish this will be a noticeable gap in the story that won’t be such a problem for the rest of us.

Politicians and sex scandals go hand in hand – always has done and always will. While this film doesn’t make an effort to explain to us why they need to lead such lurid and duplicitous lives it also doesn’t glamorise the lifestyle either, certainly not for our young leads Iris and Sonja. Their introduction to the seedy world of sex on demand comes when they sneak out one night with two other girls from the home Minna (Jade Viljamaa) and Mari (Julia Lindblom), who are already on the game.

They start off their evenings dancing topless for a single man in his apartment then head off to a nearby hotel where they are expected by the doorman and the staff. Iris and Sonja make an impression on the man, calling the back this time to meet Dagma. Bottles of flowing expensive booze and flattering comments later and Dagma has a pair of new girls to add to her roster.

Initially the girls are resistant to doing anything to crude or physical until they realise that Dagma and her beefy chauffeur/so-pimp Glenn (Sven Nordin) are watching their every move. Gradually the financial remuneration wins them over and, of the two, Iris is the one who settles into the role, largely due to Dagma singling her out.

While Sonja still helps her sneak out at nights, when drugs become part of the deal to get her in the mood, she tries to persuade Iris to quit, a bad idea as Dagma’s stranglehold over her is reiterated.

The story is not exclusively about Iris, who is more than a totem for the underage prostitutes at the centre of this scandal. Dagma is a busy yet powerful woman, who has something for all tastes and a wide spectrum of women to provide these services – from young single mothers to middle aged housewives to successful working women.

The secret services instigate a covert investigation headed by young vice officer John Sandberg (Simon J. Berger) and his colleague Aspen (David Dencik), which is hampered by Dagma’s influential clients, who are willing to use every legal and illegal trick in the book to suppress the investigation, aware of the damage that would befall the entire political system.

It is a compelling and gritty story being told here with an apparent moral of “friends in high places” being endorsed, but much of the enjoyment of the experience comes from the authentic replication of the time period. Mikael Marcimain is to be applauded for his meticulous attention to detail in bringing this aspect 70’s society alive again in all it seedy glory – from the pale colours of the attire and dodgy hair styles to the clouds of cigarette smoke, funky pre-disco music soundtrack and even the graphics for the credits.

The camerawork also recalls the rather intrusive close-up style of 70’s documentaries, blending seamlessly with the real and lovingly recreated TV footage to complete the illusion.

Pernilla August will be familiar to most as young Anakin Skywalker’s mother in Star Wars Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace; put this image out of your mind as Dagman couldn’t be any different. August delivers a powerhouse performance as the unscrupulous woman based on the real life madam Doris Hope, clearly relishing in the chance to be bad for once.

It’s a studied yet natural essaying of a woman aware of her own fading allure but also very much aware of her influence. The nuances, even in the creepiest scenes involving her grooming of Iris, are how August makes Dagma one of the most easily difficult to read sinister antagonists seen on film.

Similarly newcomer Sofia Karemyr has chosen a tough role to make her debut in as Iris, a girl you expect to see straightened out as per the usual conventions, but instead is forced into darker path, going beyond the anti-heroine status Karemyr has a vibrancy and presence to her that needs to be capitalised on. Josefin Asplund is another promising new face to watch out for while Ruth Vega Fernandez as Dagma’s top girl and no 2 provides some slinky glamour to the proceedings.

As a fictionalised dramatisation of a localised real life event, Call Girl will resonate on a wider scale as political unrest and is rife across the globe at the moment for one reason or another, and public distrust in our governments is at an all time high. This film won’t solve any issues but it is a very well made, powerful drama that reiterates the problem of hypocrisy and corruption of those with power. 

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