Though it begins as a psychological thriller, “The Calling Game” unexpectedly turns into something more.

Though it begins as a psychological thriller, “The Calling Game” unexpectedly turns into something more: a genre-busting exploration of self-definition and friendship. Just as he did with “Northern Star,” helmer Felix Randau draws out top-notch perfs (Valerie Koch won best actress at the Munich fest in June), here in a story of a disturbed woman’s obsessive prank phone calls made in the voice of an ailing child. Impressively constructed (though with an unsatisfactory ending), pic should see handsome returns at home, with possible Euro arthouse exposure.

Subject’s kernel has much in common with the “Anthony Godby Johnson” hoax, from which novel/pic “The Night Listener” was drawn. Irm Krischka (Koch) is a solitary 30-ish woman working at a laundry and taking care of her mute, bed-ridden mother (Franziska Ponitz). Her joyless life is an endless round of dreariness, except for the nightly phone calls she makes to strangers, when she pretends to be a bright little girl with leukemia.

A master at improv, Irm builds up relationships with people at the other end of the line and then suddenly “kills off” the child — she even gives out funeral information, secretly watching her victims turn up at the cemetery for non-existent burials.

With Sina Lehmann (Esther Schweins), she takes it one step further, posing as Eleanor, little Lea Paulina’s mom on a visit to her make-believe daughter’s phone pal. But Sina’s husband was just killed in an accident, injecting a painful dose of reality into Irm’s controlled fantasy world.

Two months later, Sina shows up at the laundry, and Irm tells her Lea Paulina is dead. Eager to form a friendship with another grieving soul, Sina actively fosters a relationship, which Irm at first resists.

Bolstered by the new friendship, Irm stops making the phone calls and even becomes warmer and playful with her mother, but a couple of perceived betrayals by Sina make it clear she’s incapable of maintaining her carefully constructed imaginary universe for long.

On the one hand, Irm is trapped in an unhappy existence, deeply resentful of her mother, whose undisguised preference for Irm’s long-dead sister continues to rankle. But she uses this dependence as an excuse to keep the world at bay. The phone calls are more than simply a destructive expression of her perceived impotence, they’re the product of a deeply disturbed mind.

Koch captures this duality: Refusing to go in for cheap tricks or twitches, she makes the character both sympathetic and chilling. With the camera kept on her tightened face in near relentless close shots, the actress doesn’t miss a beat. Neither does the stunning Schweins, capturing Sina’s outward confidence and poise while carefully revealing the aching underneath. Script, however, misfires at the end.

Style is largely straightforward, sensitive to the use of close-ups for getting inside character without overdoing it. Colors too are carefully calibrated, with a special contrast reserved for Irm’s mother’s room, bathed in a harsh white graininess. Randau makes lyrical use of Melanie’s late 1960s anthem “Beautiful People,” ideally suited with its evocation of the hesitant yearning for connections.

The Calling Game

Germany

Production

A Wueste Film West, ZDF/ARTE production. (International sales: Bavaria Film Intl., Munich.) Produced by Ralph Schwingel, Stefan Schubert, Hejo Emons. Directed by Felix Randau. Screenplay, Vera Kissel.

Crew

Camera (color), Jutta Pohlmann; editor, Gergana Voigt; music, Thies Mynther; production designer, Peter Menne; costume designer, Sandra Fuhr; sound (Dolby Digital Surround-EX), Michael John; associate producer, Bjoern Vosgerau; casting, Deborah Congia. Reviewed at San Sebastian Film Festival (Zabaltegi -- New Directors), Sept. 21, 2007. (Also in Munich Film Festival.) Running time: 83 MIN.

With

Valerie Koch, Esther Schweins, Franziska Ponitz, Stefanie Muehlhan, Ivan Shvedoff.

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