Seedy yet austere, and fastidiously imaginative in its recreation of period detail, Call Girl is based on the so-called ‘Bordellhärvan’ scandal which the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter broke in 1977. The scandal centred on allegations that powerful figures in the judiciary and in the Social Democratic government of the time, including the then Minister for Justice, paid for sex with prostitutes, provided by a Stockholm brothel madam.

It was, it should be said, legal to purchase sexual services in Sweden in the mid-seventies. However, the brothel visits in question, by figures in positions of some authority, were viewed as a security risk, as foreign embassy staff were also reported to be clients of the madam in question.

The story is based on actual events, albeit with names of key figures, including the brothel madam, the chief of police and government press officer and others changed. In October 2012 director Mikael Marcimain defended this, his debut feature, which was then about to open in Sweden. “We have made a feature film, a work of fiction,” he wrote. “A thriller. This is not a documentary. It is a work of art. I have no further comments."

As a consequence of the stylised drama, you leave the cinema, hungry for a documentary, curious to know the real story. You want to separate the artefact of the film from the actual facts of the case.

In terms of comparable stories, there was something affectionate and light about the 1989 movie Scandal which starred John Hurt, Joanne Whalley and Bridget Fonda. Scandal was based on the Profumo affair of 1963, which also involved government ministers and call girls, albeit British in this case. However, Call Girl is a dark and disturbing film, with not a frisson of that lurid nostalgia which made Scandal the appealing film that it is.

In Call Girl, the sullen and troubled 15-year-old Iris (Sofia Karemyr) is constantly running away, so her mother decides to have her consigned to a juvenile care home. Nothing of any great note occurs until her cousin Sonja (Josefin Asplund) arrives. Delighted to find themselves under the same roof, the girls are emboldened to take advantage of the tolerant regime. They steal out at night, drink beer, hook up with guys, and blag about their age as they attempt to get into Stockholm’s nightspots.

Somehow in the milieu in which they circulate, they meet a decidedly dodgy individual who gets them to strip off their tops and dance in his apartment. Plus, they get paid for what they see as these laughable antics. Through this encounter, they get to meet the brothel madam Dagmar Glans (Pernilla August.) Dagmar offers the girls the keys to her apartment, where they can hang out with their friends and have the occasional party.

Before long, the foul-mouthed, ruthlessly-driven madam has both girls under her thumb, working the posh hotels of Stockholm, or sent to a lavish party, attended by pillars of the establishment. Meanwhile, John Sandberg (Simon J Berger) from the Swedish vice squad becomes obsessed with uncovering the lurid escapades of the high and mighty. He does so, despite the determination of government apparatchiks, an unscrupulous government press officer, and elements of the Swedish Secret Service to keep the scandal under wraps.

The soundtrack features what appear to be deliberately lesser-known tunes by the Bee Gees, Bryan Ferry and David Bowie. Rather late and very briefly in the film, Abba sing on a random TV screen, as though that quartet’s unsullied melodic majesty must be kept at some distance from the shame of national pride disgraced. Period films sometimes point up their visual references far too obviously, but not Call Girl. It would take a keen observer of a certain age to spot the vinyl LP cover of Demis Roussos’s Forever and Ever, sidelong on a shelf, in a brief panning shot. 

Call Girl is released at the IFI and selected cinemas.

Paddy Kehoe

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