The visa-motivated courtship of convenience has been the subject of many a romantic comedy, though when you consider the bleak reality of the situation, it’s hardly a laughing matter: For one’s life and location to hang in the balance, determined by cold governmental paperwork and the fickle whims of a stranger’s heart, is a quandary likelier to end in despair than delight. “The Charmer,” an accomplished, deceptively titled debut feature from Danish-based Iranian filmmaker Milad Alami, treats the situation with anxious gravity, following an Iranian immigrant in Denmark as he trawls the singles-bar circuit in desperate pursuit of a ticket to remain. What seems a premise for an earnest social-issue drama is darkened and complicated, however, by a progressively noir-ish strain of morally elusive mystery — enhancing the international distribution prospects of a topical, tightly wound slow-burner.
A note of troubling discord is struck from the enigmatic first scene of “The Charmer,” as a young blonde woman slowly pads around the interior of a comfy, plushly appointed Copenhagen apartment before launching herself, quite suddenly and decisively, out of the living-room window, while an unseen cohabitant showers in the room next door. It takes some time for this disorienting opening gambit to lock into place, as the unidentified woman’s abruptly curtailed narrative calmly gives way to the seemingly unconnected story of Esmail (Swedish-Iranian actor Ardalan Esmaili, impressive in only his second feature), a young Iranian expat who’s as handsome, suave and affable as the title implies.
He’s a catch with a catch, however. On the Copenhagen nightlife strip he favors, single women see him as an urbane eligible bachelor, in the kind of sharply cut business suit that implies a closet full of expensively identical ones at home. What they don’t know is that he’s living in nervous limbo, rapidly running out of time on his migrant visa, eking out a living as a furniture mover while rooming in a shelter for similarly unmoored male immigrants. (He also has only the one nightly-worn suit, as precious and exhaustively maintained as any superhero costume — an incidental ritual that keep’s snagging the camera’s notice.) Those aren’t the only problems with this picture, but Alami and Ingeborg Topsøe’s finely whittled screenplay plays its revelations patiently, putting a lot of early trust in their leading man’s powers of silent implication and the serene foreboding of Sophia Olsson’s charcoal-streaked cinematography.
We meet Esmail at the tail-end of a relationship with a Danish woman that one might guess has followed the arc of several others before it: Despite their sexual chemistry and his outward viability, she breaks it off, complaining that he’s “rushing it.” She’s not wrong; she just doesn’t know the real reason why. Back to the bars it is, then — though in an otherwise astutely observed contemporary piece, it’s a curious false note that someone so urgently in need of romantic partnership hasn’t pursued online or app-based dating options. In any event, when he meets whip-smart, Iranian-born Danish citizen Sara (electropop singer Soho Rezanejad, making a striking screen debut), his problems might be solved — though she’s got his number, and isn’t willing to make it easy for him.
As time tenderizes their initially guarded attraction and “The Charmer” tentatively blossoms into a romance, we wonder if our hero might not even have to settle for a paper marriage. As it turns out, true love simplifies very little in a narrative as sharply secretive as the man at its center. As a pair of urgent but elliptical subplots close in on Esmail, notes of paranoid psychodrama — as unsettled as the trembling strings of Martin Dirkov’s score — enter the mix in a film that confidently straddles tones for much of its running time, only once or twice teetering into over-cranked genre territory.
Alami’s keen-eyed, detail-oriented insight into Scandinavia’s growing Iranian community, with its subtle internal divisions and its sliding scale between assimilation and proud cultural preservation, gives “The Charmer” resonance beyond its more intimate effectiveness as a character thriller; it’s a film that shares its somewhat cool empathy across the very different experiences of people on either side of the integration line. Esmaili’s quietly agitated, deftly code-switching performance, meanwhile, must persuasively evoke any one of those life stories depending on the company he’s in, holding the viewer’s gaze while continually backing away from our full acquaintance. Esmail’s future may be up in the air for most of the film; Esmaili’s looks rather more assured.