Director and co-writer Milad Alami’s The Charmer is a film stuck between genres. Though its title may suggest that it works in a comedic vein, Alami’s debut feature wants to be a realist migration drama, a poetic account of masculine desperation, and a psychological thriller rife with nonlinear plot twists. The filmmakers never commit to any of those styles, which makes The Charmer seem like several fused-together trial drafts of the same narrative.
The film focuses on Esmail (Ardalan Esmaili), a thirtysomething Iranian who spends his days working as a mover, trying to pick up women to marry so he can stay in Denmark. One day, he meets a Danish woman of Iranian decent, Sara (Soho Rezanejad), who’s privy to his scheming but who ends up falling for him anyway. She invites him to a party, where they watch her mother (Susan Taslimi) perform Iranian songs. Before he knows it, he’s been all but agglomerated into the family—all under the watchful eyes of Sara’s dead father’s portrait in the living room and the equally haunting, and perennially incestuous, presence of the mother in the bedroom next door.
Although The Charmer is intent on complicating its narrative with an unnecessary lack of linearity and ominous figures from the past who appear to taunt and sometimes punch Esmail, the film is much more interesting when it indulges in dreamlike flights of fancy—when it forgets that it has a journey to tell and impressionistically surrenders to Esmail’s interior turmoil, as when he has a nervous breakdown while having sex with a stranger in a kind of allergic reaction to transactional intimacy. Or when he takes a sudden break from moving furniture at a mansion to take a plunge in its swimming pool in his underwear—and to his co-worker’s stupefaction.
Those digressions stand in stark contrast to the parts of the film that insist we care about how certain plot incidents fit into the greater scheme of a traditional thriller. Breadcrumbs are conspicuously laid out for us in Esmail’s forays to the same bar, where he seems to wear the same sharp suit, and where he chats with the same white, self-described “meat-and-potatoes” Danish man, who’s surprised to see that Esmail’s exoticness isn’t rewarded with the attention of white Danish women. And instead of further exploiting its allegories and poetic interludes, The Charmer keeps pulling back into the domain of familiar storytelling, albeit one devoid of strict linearity.
The Danish stranger at the bar who Esmail keeps running into turns out to not be much of a stranger after all, ruining his status as a ghostly metaphor. Suddenly we’re in the much less interesting domain of revelations instead of that of impressions. Limbos become actual places, open-endedness gives rise to conclusions, and “home” is a place one can actually go back to.