Saturday, December 1, 2018

Milad Alami's THE CHARMER: unfurling a mystery about character and motivation

Can a movie succeed almost solely by keeping hidden from the audience the real motives of its main character? Not the actions: Those are apparent. But the why of those actions, not so much. Further, what if the motives in question are unclear even to the character himself? Or perhaps they began as clear -- but then changed?

All these questions may surface in your mind as you mull over the events and particularly the conclusion of THE CHARMER, the new Danish/Swedish co-production directed and co-written (with Ingeborg Topsøe) by Milad Alami, a young-ish filmmaker who was born in Iran, grew up in Sweden and now lives in Denmark -- and who, TrustMovies would imagine, knows quite a lot about being a Middle-Eastern immigrant to Scandinavia.

Mr. Alami, pictured at left, has created a rather unusual character here. What we know about his anti-hero, Esmail (played by Ardalan Esmaili, shown above and below), is that this man is in Denmark legally, but only for a very short time longer (according to the Danish social worker who is helping him), so he should probably resign himself to being sent back to Iran.

Yet Esmail is (and has been for some time now) fucking his way through an array of eligible (and sometimes, it turns out, ineligible) Danish women, in hopes of finding one who will marry him and this give him "legality." Things are not working out, however. As his current "squeeze" informs him, while ending their relationship, he consistently comes on too strong and tries too hard.

Clearly, he does both. In almost every scene, Esmail seems unsure and agitated, nervous and ill at ease. While he is attractive enough on the surface, though nothing all that special, were it not for his evidently amazing sexual prowess, which we both see and hear about, it would be a bit difficult to understand why this guy is so "prized." Real charm demands ease and affability, neither of which appears to be chief among Esmail's repertoire -- and grows even less so as his deportation approaches.

The movie returns again and again to the bar he frequents where he evidently meets most of his women, and where one particular man insists on talking to him repeatedly. ("I'm not gay," Esmail explains; "I'm not either," the fellow assures him.) Alami opens his film with the sounds of lovemaking, and then a very short conversation between the lovers, after which the woman does something extremely unexpected. We know nothing of who these people are, but the event, of course, will come home to roost later on.

Along the way Esmail meets, befriends and eventually takes quite a shine to a young Iranian-Danish woman (Soho Rezanejad, above, right, and below) and her mother, who was a famous singer in her native country. Mom and daughter, too, are quite impressed with our charmer.

All these elements jostle for position in the tale -- which has been conceived and executed in a bizarrely manipulative manner -- and eventually they play out to some sort of conclusion, even as poor Esmail falls further apart. There are surprises, and we learn things -- sort of. And, yes, there are some possible motives we see (or imagine). Turns out, I'm afraid, that our Esmail is either not a very bright fellow at all, or he is (maybe, rather, was) supremely sleazy.

And so, to answer the question about the movie's success, posed in my initial paragraph above, the answer -- for me at least -- is no. The Charmer is never uninteresting as it moves quietly along. But it is, finally -- due to its refusal to commit enough actual "character" to its central character -- nowhere near what I'd call fulfilling.

From Film Movement and running 102 minutes, the movie has its U.S. theatrical premiere this Wednesday, December 5, in New York City at Film Forum. Other playdates/cities do not seem to be forthcoming (or have already occurred: click here and scroll down to see the list ), so if you're not in NYC, wait for streaming or the DVD. 

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