Esmail (Ardalan Esmaili), the protagonist of Milad Alami’s “The Charmer,” uses women for survival. At first, his actions seem wholly mercenary: he’s an Iranian immigrant in Denmark whose visa has run out. He’s about to get deported back to Iran unless he can get a green card through marriage to a Danish woman. This leads to a string of seductions, one of which ends in a tragedy depicted at the film’s beginning. But Esmail has a secret that keeps him from just doing whatever he wants, and he knows that he’s constantly violating his moral compass. He’s a step away from becoming a Patricia Highsmith character, but Alami’s sensibility is much more humanist.
Esmaili’s performance does an excellent job of conveying all this. Early on, “The Charmer” emphasizes the actor’s physicality. The film contains several sex scenes. Others show off his shirtless torso in the shower and swimming pool. Once Esmail meets the Iranian-Danish woman Sara (Soho Rezanejad), he starts to relax, but he puts on a blazer and white dress shirt every time he goes out to pick up women. He’s trying to pretend he’s more assimilated and white-collar than he actually is, although he works as a furniture mover and lives in a hostel for immigrant men. That blazer is essentially a costume — a stab at “executive realness.”
Sophia Olsson’s cinematography tends to turn daytime interiors into milky white backgrounds. The film’s color scheme is muted and somber. The Scandinavian weather bites into the film’s look. Sara’s house is a refuge for Esmail; once she becomes a part of his life, much of the dialogue is in Farsi. He finds a place among Denmark’s Iranian diaspora. But if he sees something positive there, she wants more freedom, telling him she hates living with her mother at age 26. One person’s home away from home is another’s actual home, with all the baggage that entails.
“The Charmer” describes some of the same social tensions as Aki Kaurismäki’s “The Other Side of Hope,” released a year ago, and Mikko Makela’s “A Moment In the Reeds,” a love story between a Finnish man and a gay Syrian refugee now debuting on VOD. But it brings up the difficulties of being a Middle Eastern immigrant in Northern Europe with subtlety. Even when a white Dane calls Esmaili a “raghead,” he doesn’t come across as a plaster saint. And the extent to which “The Charmer” uses sex to tell its story feels very European.
If it has elements of a thriller due to a subplot about Esmail being tracked down by Lars (Lars Brygmann), the angry husband of a woman he slept with, it turns into a character study halfway through. An unstated tension runs between Esmail and Sara. It would’ve been easy for “The Charmer” to tell a simplistic story about an Iranian immigrant in a relationship with an ethnically Danish woman, and the difficulties that might result. If he found love with a woman from an Iranian background who can get him a Danish visa through marriage, that could have been presented as a deus ex machina to end the film. Instead, “The Charmer” explores Esmail and Sara’s differences, presenting a world where his code-switching never stops.
Esmaili, who lives in Sweden, is relatively new to acting. “The Charmer” is only the second film he has made. Alami’s family emigrated from Iran to Sweden when he was a child, and he now lives in Denmark, but he says that he comes from a far more comfortable background than Esmail and his relationship to his character is “fascination, not identification.” The final five minutes of this film may tie up its questions fairly neatly, but it’s clear that Esmail will be troubled no matter what he does. Any choice he makes is poisoned by the fact that he’ll be hurting a woman emotionally either way. The film’s focus always centers on him, but, by the end, one realizes that social circumstances have put him in a bind where he’s forced to screw them over to get by.
THE CHARMER | Directed by Milad Alami | Film Movement | In Danish and Farsi with English subtitles | Opens Dec. 5 | Film Forum, 209 W. Houston St. | filmforum.org