Esmail (Ardalan Esmaili) migrated to Denmark two years ago with the goal to meet a woman and ensure that he can legally stay in the country. He has had no success and time is running out before he is deported and sent back to Iran in “The Charmer.”
After watching this first feature film by Milad Alami, I was struck with how this immigration story is to me, an American, a foreign affair. By that I mean, Esmail’s plight, while poignant and current in Europe, is not one I can empathize with on this side of the Atlantic. As such, Alami opens my eyes through the immigrant’s eyes as his story unfolds.
“The Charmer” begins with a woman getting out of bed and wandering through the apartment. We hear the sounds of a shower as she walks to a window, opens it and jumps out. Then, we meet Esmail, who is trying to insinuate himself into the life, and home, of a young woman. She feels too pressured by his intrusion and ends the brief romance. Esmail must find, we learn, a willing partner to his immigration plans.
Throughout “The Charmer,” there is a guy that Esmail meets by chance in a pick-up bar. Then, they meet again and again and the guy’s intentions, not good, become apparent. There are also Esmail’s ongoing phone calls to family in Iran and sending the money he earns back home. And, he meets the sultry Iranian émigré, Sara (Soho Rezanejad), who takes him under her wing – and adds another unexpected dimension to Esmail’s life.
I had to think about “The Charmer” for a while after seeing it, to let it grow on me. While I do not empathize with Esmail (I have no personal reference in my life), I grew to sympathize with the man and his hopes and dreams. I give it a B.
Every day, Iranian ex-pat Esmail (Ardalan Esmaili) changes out of his work clothes for a moving company and puts on his one suit to spend the evening at a Copenhagen wine bar. He flirts with women young and old, sometimes going home with them. But the woman he'd moved in with is uncomfortable with his fast moves, asking him to leave just as an immigration official has been demanding a letter of cohabitation in order to stay in the country. Esmail's life is further complicated when he falls for Sara (Soho Rezanejad), another Iranian ex-pat who is onto his game as "The Charmer."
Cowriter (with Ingeborg Topsøe)/director Milad Alami pulls off quite the tricky balancing act, opening his film with a disturbing scene that he doesn't explain until his third act, seducing us in the interim into thinking we're watching a character study backgrounded in the hot social topic of immigration. So it is quite the surprise to learn that we've really been watching a psychological thriller of sorts, Esmail wearing so many masks we never see him clearly until the film's final moments.
While it is quite clear that Esmail is trying to use a woman to stay in Denmark, Esmaili ensures that the character remains likable. He's not a bad guy and seems to genuinely like and respect the women he pursues, genuinely horrified when he discovers in flagrante this his sexual partner is married when her young child walks into the room. And if he's using these women, many of them are doing the same with him, finding him an exotic, good looking guy for sex without commitment.
But Esmail is growing increasingly desperate. In addition to his immigration woes, his job appears to exist on a day-to-day basis and money is tight. He's jittery around the one guy, Lars (Lars Brygmann), who seems to frequent the wine bar with the same regularity he does, reluctant to bite when Lars wants to compare notes. Then he meets two beautiful women at once, Liv (Amalie Lindegård), a Dane, and Sara, who boldly calls him out but also encourages him, along with Liv, to attend a Persian party with them. Esmail is immersed in his own culture once more, enjoying the main event, Iranian singer Leila (Susan Taslimi) who not only takes a shine to him and his delightful manners but turns out to be Sara's mother. Esmail's invited to dinner, but although his relationship with Sara progresses, she tells him she cannot marry him. He's then asked to lend a hand with a party, one in which Leila drapes a garland around a portrait of her late husband, a trigger, it appears, for Esmail.
Alami keeps us guessing without using any cheap tricks like faulty narrators or red herrings. When the whole truth is finally revealed, the film becomes tragic on multiple fronts. We're still not entirely sure of Esmail's ultimate game plan, but we do know that, however unintentional, his behavior has had a negative domino effect.
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