There is a rug-pull moment in Magnus von Horn’s handsome and captivating period yarn that cleaves his drama into “before” and “after.” It is a testament to the rich and assured storytelling on offer in his Cannes competition entry “The Girl with the Needle” that, although the moment seems to come out of nowhere, it instantly makes sense and serves to ratchet up the tension, propelling the story’s evergreen themes into a confrontational new register.

In post-World War I Copenhagen, we drop in with Karoline (Vic Carmen Sonne) as she is being evicted from a pleasant room in a respectable part of town. With her soldier husband MIA, her factory worker wages don’t cover the rent and she has fallen into arrears. The rapacious need of this time is telegraphed as mere minutes after Karoline receives her marching orders, the woman replacing her arrives to look over the room.

In tow is an angelic young daughter whom Karoline attempts to terrorize, saying that rats will crawl over her feet as she sleeps. The daughter whimpers that she doesn’t want to move here. In the film’s first depiction of maternal ambivalence, the mother slaps her daughter sharply around the face, leaving a mark. As in Paola Cortellesi’s recent neorealist-style Italian hit “There’s Still Tomorrow,” this might be a black and white period picture, but the women driving it forwards are unpredictably colorful.

The narrative unfolds in the episodic mode of “The House of Mirth” as we follow a heroine in semi freefall, whose heartfelt motives are not supported by a society with a narrow view of women’s place. The dramatic irony between the world that Karoline thinks she is living in and the one that the film portrays is severe yet shies away from outright sadism and often subverts our expectations. 

Women in these types of pictures are often brutally punished for daring to display autonomy. “The Girl with the Needle” is not another entry into this canon. Rather, it is curious about the characters forged by crushing, patriarchy-inflicted disappointments. Indeed, it sides with those characters with imaginative framing. This comes through in an ambient atonal soundtrack by Frederikke Hoffmeier that lifts the dirty backstreets of Copenhagen into the realm of modern folklore. 

After relocating to a less salubrious part of town, Karoline is swept up in a passionate romance with factory owner and son of a baroness, Jørgen (Joachim Fjelstrup). They first fuck against the wall in a cobbled backstreet. Jørgen is delighted with Karoline. He is a sensitive mummy’s boy unused to the pleasures of the flesh. As for Karoline, she believes that this is love. So, when a man with a creepy mask covering his disfigured face calls out her name outside the factory gates — and the man turns out to be her husband, Peter (Besir Zeciri) — she tells him that she has moved on. In fact, after allowing him to trail her home, she screams at him to get out.

There is a “Nightmare Alley”-like quality to Peter’s arc. He is a discarded man (like so many returning soldiers), the shadow side to the radiant, rich Jørgen, and the only work he can find is as a circus freak. Like the ringmaster, the film openly gawps at his mangled face, replicating this cruel gaze with a vehemence only matched with the punchline it makes of Jørgen. Cinematographer Michal Dymek (“Cold War,” “Eo”) creates contrasting imagery out of the spaces occupied by different classes, offering a glimpse of the lives that Karoline could have. Jørgen’s mother moves through the airy, high-ceilinged spaces of prestige cinema, while Peter lurks in squalid, vaudevillian nooks. A masterful visual language works with the script by von Horn and Line Langebek Knudsen to wring absurd existential humor out of every scenario. 

Vic Carmen Sonne is an astonishing presence — all round, attentive eyes and stunned silences as she takes in the sweep of each new twist of fate. Karoline is a woman lashed to each unfolding moment, unable to plan beyond the next step needed to survive. Nonetheless, she is vividly alive and her emotions anchor the ever-shifting horizons of the narrative.

It seems like Karoline meets a kindred spirit at the public baths when the pragmatic Dagmar (Trine Dyrholm) helps her out of a jam. Later — when Karoline is even more down on her luck — she shows up at Dagmar’s sweetshop and ends up living with the woman and her young daughter Erena (Ava Knox Martin). The sweetshop is just one line of work for Dagmar, the second sees Karoline working as a wet nurse as the film’s dominant theme of motherhood slinks into the frame. What it means, what it costs, and who decides whether women are bound to it are questions explored with no definitive answer in sight.

With Karoline relocated to this domestic microcosm, von Horn tightens the film’s freewheeling scope to create a chamber piece bursting with unspoken desires. Dagmar is a formidable figure, at once daunting and desperate. Erena is a dutiful daughter willing to do weird stuff in order to fulfill her mother’s wishes. Meanwhile the forces that drove Karoline to this part-co-op, part-home, are still ravaging her mind and body and Sonne is incredible in a very physical performance. The story whips along at a pleasing clip while the atmosphere becomes increasingly full of repressed emotion.

Slotted neatly into a scene that had previously played just like the rest, the rug-pull moment represents a dramatic peak which echoes during a climactic court speech that directly addresses both the bubbling themes and the history that has encased what was actually a true crime. Von Horn’s decision to play his cards close to his chest until the very moment when he presents them with catlike finesse pays off spectacularly. A different kind of provocateur would let the film rely on its sordid twist, like Lars von Trier taking a hammer to his dollhouses. Von Horn, however, cares for his characters and each is allowed a hardwon grace note. One leaves the cinema entertained and reeling, very unsure of what in any other context would be so easy to judge. 

Grade: B+

“The Girl with the Needle” premiered at the 2024 Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.

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