Show Me Cinema #22: Call Girl

Back in 2012, the movie Call Girl was released in Sweden to much attention and interest. That’s because the movie was inspired by what’s known here in Sweden as Bordellhärvan or Geijeraffären, the Geijer Affair roughly translated into English. It occured in the mid-to-late 1970s in Stockholm where our Minister of Justice at the time, Lennart Geijer, was involved in the exploitation of prostitutes organized by brothel madam Doris Hopp. When the story broke and the extent of the scandal was made public in 1977, it became quite the shock, not only because numerous high ranking politicians (some of them ranking so highly as Center Party’s and later Prime Minister Thorbjörn Fälldin) were revealed to be possible customers by the prostitutes, but also the fact that many of the prostitutes were underage and many of them having an Eastern European background, which could’ve made it a national security crisis. It has been dramatized and fictionalized numerous times both in literature and film (one of the films I’ve covered in this column, Bo Widerberg’s The Man from Majorca and the book it was adapted from both took inspiration from the scandal), but Call Girl deals directly with the actual details of the scandal. And that’s where it falters frankly.

Call Girl itself takes place in 1976, with the 1976 general elections being the backdrop of the story. It mostly follows the character of Iris (played by Sofia Karemyr), a young girl who struggles with authority and is sent to a youth home, where she meets Sonja (Josefin Asplund). The two of them frequently go to Stockholm late at night for escape, and one way or another end up with brothel madam Dagmar Glans (Pernilla August; loosely based on Doris Hopp), and become drawn into her prostitution ring and are often asked and sometimes downright forced to have sex with numerous high-ranking politicians. At the same time, a cop from the Reconnaissance Squad (it’s incredibly hard to translate from the Swedish Spaningsroteln but I think you get the gist of it) named John (Simon J. Berger) is tasked by his superiors to investigate and keep an eye on Glans and her operations, and he uncovers the web of sleaze and deception and lies right underneath the idyllic and utopian image of Sweden.

Call Girl had so much potential to be a great movie and I was really looking forward to seeing it and was fully prepared to love it, but alas I was left disappointed by it. And I think the two biggest problems with it are twofold: the writing and the direction, specifically the way the camerawork is handled. But let’s start with the writing. This movie feels much more like a first draft than a finalized shooting script to me, in that despite its 140-minute running time it never provides enough character development or generates enough interest in key plot developments or the characters frankly. All the characters are so bland and mediocre that you never get to know any of them or be interested in any of them whatsoever. It’s especially a problem with Iris, as I never truly understood why she does the things she does in the movie or care much for her. The same goes for John the cop and his eventual partner. None of them feel like they have any stake in what’s happening and they’re all introduced in a very sloppy way. I don’t think it’s not a case where the movie has bitten of more than it can chew because I definitely think you can make it a political thriller-type movie whilst also a drama about a fourteen-year old girl struggling with herself, but it would’ve needed a significant rewrite for that to work properly. Not necessarily a page-one rewrite, but a lot of stuff would need to be worked out.

Then the second biggest problem with the movie is the way the camera is used. The film was directed by Mikael Marcimain and shot by Hoyte van Hoytema right before the latter left for a career in Hollywood. And whilst the movie is lit fairly well, almost the whole movie is shot with a handheld camera and it frankly drew me nuts. I think I may have watched a little too many Brian De Palma interviews but I think he has a point when he says that things like coverage, over-the-shoulders and two-shots are the kiss of death of filmmaking because this movie is filled with coverage, and it’s nearly all done through handheld camerawork. Now I can’t be hypocritical and say it doesn’t work, and there are filmmakers I love who predominantly shoot their movies handled like Michael Mann. I think the issue is rather with Swedish cinema in general and a misconception that if the camera is handheld, one is automatically adding an element of realism to the movie. But when virtually every movie here does it (there are exceptions to the rule of course) it just comes across as a terribly cheap way to not having to think of interesting compositions or simply thinking it’ll be “too hard” or “take too much time to set up.” If that was the thought process going on then it’s just lazy filmmaking. And it’s a shame because it also hides a lot of the production values that one can tell was put into the production design, wardrobe and effects to make everything look as period-authentic as possible. But hey, at least David Bowie and ABBA are on the soundtrack so that’s always something.

Color me disappointed then because I saw so much potential in Call Girl and given how well-received it was back in 2012 and how many awards nominations it got it made it sound a lot more exciting than it ended up being. As it is now it’s just a mediocre mess with uninteresting characters, sloppy camerawork and nice production values.


Published by davidalkhed

Co-creator, critic and columnist for A Fistful of Film.

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