Part of an occasional series in which Spank The Monkey travels to foreign countries, watches films in unfamiliar languages, and then complains about not understanding them
Sweden! Land of Bergman, Garbo and Abba The Movie. There are some countries where I struggle to find local films in the cinemas, but not here. Stockholm in January 2013 was packed full of ‘em: from the family-friendly fun of Sune i Grekland, to a theatrical outing for a Wallander that’ll probably be on BBC Four by 2014. All I needed was a way to filter out the good stuff from the bad.
By chance, I found that way on my first night in the country, as I turned on the telly to discover live coverage of the Guldbaggen, Sweden’s own film awards. (That golden bug thingy at the top of the page is the actual award itself.) Perfect! All I needed to do was grab the list of winners, pick the most interesting-looking ones, and get myself down to a cinema to see them. Unfortunately, everyone else in Stockholm appeared to be doing the same thing in the week after the Guldbaggen, with screenings of Swedish movies selling out all over the place. As a result, I couldn’t always see my first choice of film.
Let’s put it this way: this film was probably something more like fourth on my list. Mammas Pojkar – literal translation Mama’s Boys, international title Metal Brothers – is the story of two thirtysomething brothers, Thor (Björn Starrin) and Oden (Johan Östling). They’re heavy metal fans of the most stereotypical kind, letting their love of the music get in the way of anything else in their lives. Their mum Gunilla (Lotta Tejle), a trendy female priest with a diminishing parish, tries to do what she can for them, including taking them back into the family home when their current living arrangements fall through. Gunilla gradually falls victim to the increasing irritation and interference of her neighbours, while the two brothers battle each other for the affections of primary school teacher and line-dancing coach Jenny (Mia Skäringer).
Occasionally, you can tell that Ulf Malmros’ film is meant to be funny. That’s not intended as a criticism. There are scenes that play like traditional comic setpieces: Gunilla talking nonsense during a baptism when she realises that nobody’s really listening to her, or the extended piece of violent slapstick that in retrospect turns out to be the dramatic climax. But aside from the visual humour stemming from the central trio of characters – notably how the generally quiet and nerdy demeanour of Thor and Oden plays against their appearance – a lot of the film is performed in that deadpan style I’ve come to expect from Scandinavian comedy over the years. The characters appear intense and heartfelt when they talk to each other: the only clue that something is up is that all around me, people in the audience are laughing their heads off.
I’m not saying that this is subtle or anything, though. The details may be, but the plot is played out in strokes broad enough to be followed even when you’re not getting the dialogue. In particular, when it looks like the Thor/Oden/Jenny triangle is about to be resolved, Malmros literally busses in a Norwegian female death metaller called Evil Bitch (Tuva Novotny) just so that one of the brothers isn’t left out. But it seems to me that in an age when most commercially-oriented comedies rely on big dumb visual gags for their appeal, no matter where they’re from, it’s curiously refreshing (though a little frustrating) to see one getting so many laughs for its dialogue.
Mammas Pojkar was my last-minute substitute for the winner of four Guldbaggen, including Best Film: Äta Sova Dö. (Translating as Eat Sleep Die, it’s presumably a more pessimistic sequel to Eat Pray Love.) That film sold out at every cinema I went to: mind you, once I’d discovered that it had already played in London (at last year’s LFF), I was perversely less interested in seeing it. Its only real rival for awards was Call Girl, which also picked up four gongs, albeit some of the lesser ones. That made me all the more determined to catch Call Girl, and after a running battle with the ticketing site of SF Cinemas – which frustratingly refuses to accept payments from non-Swedish credit cards – I managed to squeeze into a screening on my last night in town.
Set in 1976 in the runup to an election, Call Girl focuses on detective John Sandberg (Simon J Berger) and his investigation of a vice ring. We get to view it from the inside courtesy of Iris (Sofia Karemyr), who at the start of the film is deposited in some sort of home for wayward girls. Some of her new friends there make trips into Stockholm in the evenings to dance topless for money, and they invite her to join them. It’s the beginning of a very slippery slope for Iris, who gradually becomes one of the regulars working for a madam with the worrying name of Dagmar Glans (Pernilla August). As Sandberg delves into the clients on Glans’ books, one word keeps cropping up a little too frequently for comfort. That word is ‘Statsminister’.
There’s a big caption at the start of the movie, obviously all in Swedish. Scanning it for key words, I came to the conclusion that what was about to follow was either based on true events, or not based on true events, and spent the next two-and-a-bit hours not entirely sure what I was watching. Subsequent research has shown that this ambiguity is about right: Marietta von Hausswolff von Baumgarten’s script is fictional, but heavily inspired by the Bordellhärvan affair in the mid-seventies, the Swedish equivalent of our own Profumo scandal. All the names have been changed, but there’s no denying that at one point, a man whose real-life equivalent would be Olof Palme is seen paying to have sex with an underage prostitute. This has not gone down well in some quarters.
The title of Call Girl makes it sound just like the sort of film that attracted British audiences to Swedish cinema in the 60s and 70s, and director Mikael Marcimain is happy to play with that idea – the glowing neon title on the poster is balanced by the bald statement that it’s a political thriller. And both are true: there’s certainly a degree of sleaze, but also the more cerebral pleasure of a tightly-plotted conspiracy tale. It starts to turn serious around the midpoint of the film, as Sandberg’s investigation hits a couple of speed bumps – the point where he realises he’s not just being paranoid is depicted in a magnificently ambitious helicopter shot.
If, as ever, the microdetail of the investigation remains vague to a monoglot viewer, the film still has visual style to burn. Shot in that beige palette that everyone seems to have decided now represents the 70s, it keeps you on your toes with frenetic jump-cutting, off-kilter camera angles, some nicely left-field source music choices, and a cheap synth score that could just as easily be used for a period stalk-and-slash thriller. The performances are terrific throughout, especially those of Berger, Karemyr and August, and the building tension is sustained superbly. One thing, though, movie directors. You know when your script calls for someone to be knocked down by a car, and your FX house tells you they can do it realistically with CG? Well, they can’t. They really, really can’t.
Call Girl is already making its way around the European festival circuit, including an appearance at the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival in late February. Hopefully it’ll get a wider audience than that – a film that’s as gripping as this one is, even when you can’t understand what’s being said, must have something going for it. Mamma’s Pojkar? Not so much. But I bet you can guess which one is winning at the box office.
Spank The Monkey wishes to acknowledge the assistance of Magic Spikers in the writing of this article, as they allowed him to walk the snow-covered Stockholm streets from one sold-out cinema to another without falling over and breaking his sodding neck.