"Call Girl"

in 37th Toronto International Film Festival

by Juan Dominguez

Two films in TIFF 2012 — Argo, Ben Affleck’s “Oscar buzz” depiction of the real life, Hollywoodesque escape of six Americans from Iraq, and Swedish newcomer Mikael Marcimain’s feature debut Call Girl, also based on real events, share a fascination with cinematographic textures from the 70’s. Just for starters, both directors begin their films with 70s-like titles and logos. This sense of previous cinema era, unconscious but somehow shared, defines an urge, a desperate zeitgeist which aspires not so much to achieving masterful craftsmanship as to countering the mellowness that lately has softened that working class genre known as the thriller. 

With some experience already in 70’s dry-ice narratives (he was second unit director on Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), Marcimain characterizes his policier, based on the real-life high-ring prostitution scandal that became a national shame and almost brought down some key players in Swedish government, with a vibe different from Affleck’s thrills & chills suspense. What Marciman craves is not a Swedish watch precision with genre conventions (Affleck’s beautiful vice), but a density, a specific yet not desperate way for suspense to develop, both over and under the surface of his film. Suspense in Call Girl is not pyrotechnic: scene by scene, the growing tension filters through Marcimain’s skill at detailing an era and an underworld ambiance, as well as his success at transforming the story-telling style of the 70’s into what seems like the most up-to-date way of achieving cinema possibilities. 

But Marcimain’s 70’s era vision is not nostalgic; it’s visceral. And it’s smart. He has a strange yet sensitive way of being savage. By creating, not merely showing, the point of view of the soon-to-be-part-of-the-prostitution-ring young girls (Sofia Karemyr and Josefin Asplund), and later that of the alone-in-the-dark young cop (Simon J. Berger) who is trying to uncover the scandal, Marcimain takes his time showing his fangs. But when all the pieces are in place, and the girls have been fully engulfed by the creepy escort underworld, their sense of wonder replaced by desperation, and when the realism of this anything-goes corruption world has been irrevocably established, Marcimain is in his element. He’s set the lurid stage (though subdued by earth tones and a synthesizer score); now it’s time to go in for the kill. He uses genre to show a complex world, then explore it, and then, best of all, to destroy it. 

Finally, what sets Marcimain apart from Affleck is his way of going deeper into the socio-political portrait (an angry Dorian Gray portrait, at least to Swedish eyes) without sacrificing the genre. It’s by the way of the genre, and his sensitivity to an era’s details, style, and spirit, that he can be both cinematic and political, deconstructing not only movie conventions but a farcical Swedish government and the essential violence of unbridled power. 

Edited by Peter Keough