By Juan Diaz
Dir. Milad Alami, Denmark, Film Movement
Don’t let the title fool you. Milad Alami’s The Charmer is not about the dashing misadventures of a suave lothario. This complex character study is centered on Esmail (Ardalan Esmaili), an Iranian in Denmark who faces deportation unless he can settle down with a Danish partner. The first-time director’s film is a restrained look at the desperation and alienation faced by immigrants like Esmail. Through his struggles, the film explores the performative nature of assimilation and reminds us of the steep costs of trying to forge a new life and identity in a foreign land.
Alami initial images tempt us to go with that first impression, however. We are first introduced to Esmail as a sexual being: over the title credits, we hear the sounds of passionate lovemaking. We then see him attending an elegant cocktail party with another girlfriend. He moves quickly with his partners, and this girlfriend, suspicious of his motives, dumps him—but not before securing one last round of sex, in which she asks that he be aggressive with her. Esmail understands and consents to how power is being ceded: the white women he sleeps with fetishize Middle Eastern men, and Esmail thinks this might be his key to staying in Denmark.
Esmail’s search for a new partner (and a visa) takes him on regular outings to a downtown bar, where he camps out with a drink and seduces the women who pass through. He is aided in his mission, a Danish competitor quips, by his “exotic” good looks, not the “meat-and-potatoes” air of so many Danish men. But there’s an emptiness to these furtive exchanges that shames Esmail. Alami films these sexual encounters in the dark, and we are barely able to make out the figures thrusting and writhing in the shadows. After each hook-up or unsuccessful bar outing, he boards a late-night bus back to his tiny apartment. In the morning, he begins another series of exhausting routines—the blue-collar worker laboring invisibly, and the good immigrant who sends money to his unseen family in Iran.
Playing a character that could have come across as predatory, Iranian-Swedish actor Esmaili instead gives Esmail an air of loneliness and yearning. Alami describes Esmail as “a product of fascination more than identification.” This ensures enough distance from the characters so that he can let the story stray into riskier, more muddled territory. Esmail’s desperate actions to achieve his goals often border on unethical and deceptive. His own experiences with xenophobia do not preclude (or justify) his hurting other people, especially women, in his obsessive drive to fashion a more prosperous life. Esmail is at once pitiable and contemptible, pathetic and exuberant, successful in bed and yet entirely alone.
On one of his outings, he comes across a woman who is seemingly impervious to his charms. While trying to chat up Liv (Amalie Lindegård), a white Danish woman, he is introduced to her friend Sara (Soho Rezanejad), an Iranian-Danish law student who’s hip to his type. Sara bluntly observes that he’s at the bar “a lot,” and when she discovers he’s from Iran she begins teasing him in Farsi, unbeknownst to a distracted Liv. Sara playfully warns him to stay away from Liv. Rezanejad, a Danish performer of Iranian descent, plays Sara with a delicious, catlike aloofness—seemingly bored with her prey, until she decides it’s time to play with her catch.
Despite this initial meeting, in subsequent encounters Sara warms to Esmail. She and Liv take him to an Iranian dinner party, where, once bored with the festivities, Sara invites Esmail to drop Ecstasy with her. Sara discovers that Esmail is refreshingly free of the gendered prejudices of the more conservative men of her diaspora. She and her mother, Leila (Susan Taslimi), a respected member of the community who moonlights as a lounge singer, invite Esmail to a home-cooked meal. Since the death of the family patriarch, the two have made their own way in the world. Their home is a sunny one, covered in gold furnishings and Persian ornaments, a bejeweled middle finger to the impossible sleekness of Nordic design. Production designer Sabine Hviid’s work in this film shows that how one arranges their space is a living testament to their own identity. Theirs is the first Danish home that Esmail has been in that feels lived-in—so unlike the cold, dark apartments of his one-night stands. It becomes a refuge for him.
Sara’s arrival in Esmail’s life is an unexpected development, almost too-good-to-be-true. When she asks what he was hoping to find in Denmark, he answers frankly that he “could never have imagined you.” Sara is something of a chimera to him. Aware of this power differential, she remarks almost teasingly that she has the power to change his life by marrying him. She initiates their brief sexual encounters; she rings him up when she needs someone to take care of her when she’s had too much to drink. Sara is the one assessing his marriageability and seeing just how he might fit into her life.
But even if Sara finds Esmail an increasingly suitable partner, others disagree. At a dinner party that Esmail helps Sara and Leila organize, a cadre of male relatives and friends interrogate him. They ask about his standing, ask how he came to be in Denmark, and offer bromides about never forgetting Iran, all while sipping whiskey in a sunroom. They also make known just how highly regarded Sara and Leila are. These are signs to Esmail that he is regarded as an interloper. One guest even asks if he is an Afghani. Previous moments of class discomfort, such as Leila’s curt smile when he reveals he is a mover, and Sara’s initial teasing, are thrown into starker relief. These gestures are tinged with the classism and respectability established immigrants can visit upon newer ones. In this homogenous Scandinavian nation, it is his own kind that most directly confronts him with questions of identity, and threatens the integrity of his act.
In a film for which belonging is such a central concern, Alami’s mise-en-scène is rightly centered on where and how his characters move through space. Alami understands that how he positions and blocks his characters can articulate more about their desires than dialogue ever could. In an early scene, Esmail stares longingly at the seaside vista of an elegant home where he’s a party guest. As a mover, Esmail frequently stops to take in the furnishings and amenities of the wealthy apartments he works at. His own cramped apartment is sparsely decorated apart from the suit he wears while cruising, and which hangs from a hanger like a sacred object. Esmail takes great pains to avoid being here (after he’s tossed from his second girlfriend’s spacious apartment he schleps an overnight bag back home), and his physical discomfort here betrays a sense of frustration that he has not managed to do better after his two years of living in Denmark. Alami and cinematographer Sophia Ollson make much use of natural light, which wraps these images in a dreary realism. Alami also attempts to include more obvious elements of the noir genre that has become a staple of Nordic storytelling, such as ominous music and darkly lit scenes of Esmail walking down empty streets. These are distractions in a film that has already deftly generated frissons through its depictions of power and class tensions.
The most potent aspect of Alami’s direction is the way his camera revels in his actors. Esmaili and Rezanejad are gifts in this regard. Rezanejad’s expressive eyes often do emotional work that the script cannot, conveying passion and ambivalence as Sara finds herself truly falling for Esmail. In Esmail, Alami’s camera picks up hints of desperation and paranoia bubbling up under the surface as secrets from his past threaten to intrude in his new relationship. Alami understands that in the absence of language, a glance or an act of intimacy can communicate far more effectively than words. The two often exchange charged, knowing looks. As their relationship develops, Alami increasingly tightens the frame on the couple in their more intimate moments. His visual language is not showy or formally radical, but it demonstrates an insight into how people can express so much about their condition through their physicality.
But even the cleverest of charmers finds it difficult to keep up with a performance predicated on lies. At the film’s climax, as Esmail nears the solution that could end his immigration struggles, his guilt becomes too much to bear and he reveals to Sara why their relationship would never work. The secrets of his past burst forth, almost violently, and Esmail’s entire act disintegrates before her eyes. When Sara discovers the magnitude of his deception, she retreats, wounded and perhaps embarrassed that despite her better judgment, she fell for his charms too.