Almost a decade since his debut feature The Here After premiered at Directors’ Fortnight, Swedish director Magnus von Horn is finally in Cannes Competition with the black-and-white period film The Girl with the Needle. Previously there was Sweat––the Polish-language jab at influencer culture––but when the festival was canceled on account of the pandemic, it got a “Cannes Selection” stamp rather than “Competition.” A silver lining that The Girl with the Needle is perhaps best-suited for a Palme d’Or head-to-head: it is surprising, stylish, and unabashedly brave.

Von Horn certainly knows what to aim for when bringing in two of the most exciting names in Scandinavian cinema today, Vic Carmen Sonne (Holiday) and Trine Dyrholm (Queen of Hearts, In a Better World). Sonne plays Karoline, a factory seamstress who finds herself in a pickle; Dyrholm is Dagmar, the mysterious woman who offers help. While Karoline is undoubtedly the protagonist––and the titular girl with the needle, per one rather terrifying scene––her image is never complete without Dagmar’s. Having two characters influence and enable each other could be considered a classic narrativizing strategy of mirroring, but the synergy between them is palpable enough to imply they, together, form a single protagonist.

If the name Dagmar does not ring a bell, do not investigate before seeing The Girl with the Needle. A less-suspecting audience would reap biggest benefits from not knowing the story, as the film very skillfully addresses international viewers through a well-crafted, period-specific world. Told over three acts and aided by encroaching darkness, its structure promises a big reveal; Van Horn does not disappoint. Cinematographer Michał Dymek––whom we have to thank for the distressing image artistry of Jerzy Skolimowski’s EO and Nathalie Biancheri’s Wolf––proves once again that he can conjure eeriness from every single shot.

We begin at the musty living quarters where Karoline eats and sleeps between long shifts at the sewing factory. Women’s labor is central to The Girl with the Needle, from the factory workers (all women) in charge of army uniforms to the topic of (unwanted) pregnancies, and it cleverly weaves the two semantic bits into a biting, never-moralistic whole. Through the theme of motherhood in this third feature, Magnus von Horn has already reinvented himself as an accomplished storyteller of the macabre.The Here After explored familial dynamics and the unsaid; Sweat suggested there were darker undercurrents in the sparkling life of a fitness influencer. The Girl with The Needle dives headfirst into a swamp of terror, a bubbling concoction of maternal phobias and early-20th-century dread––so much that you can taste every ounce of pain as if it was your own.

The factory owner (Joachim Fjelstrup) is the only man around and decent enough to hear Karoline’s cry for help: she’s requested a widow’s allowance after her husband’s gone missing in the war. Seemingly generous, the employer takes a liking to Karoline and things escalate quickly: from a shy exchange of glances to him lifting up her skirt in a Copenhagen alleyway to the passerby’s dismay. Soon enough he’s gifting her an expensive dress and taking her to meet his mother, a baroness, in her mansion. Needless to say a rags-to-riches storyline is not in the cards for Karoline, who––doe-eyed and hopeful––now carries his baby. Like a deus ex machina comes Dagmar interfering at the right moment of need; as a well-respected woman who runs an underground adoption scheme for unwanted children, she suggests a safe harbor to a lost soul. As their bond deepens––not without hitches and complications––a more sinister truth begins to crystalize. Yet the strongest, most arresting sequences take place in spoiler-sensitive territory. Beware drug use and violence.

Teaming with co-writer Line Langebek, van Horn takes a true story and weaves many obstacles, encounters, and disappointments to make sure we see Karoline as a multifaceted character, even if she barely speaks. It’s not that she’s deliberately quiet or scheming in any way; her reticence to talk instead confirms a lack of faith in life as it is. Girl‘s period setting––1919 in a post-WWI Copenhagen––may be a century removed from our times, but its atmosphere weighs on you just as today’s world might. With old wars supposedly ending and new ones brewing, home evictions, poverty, and lack of abortion rights, Scandinavia in the 1920s can terrifyingly mirror many parts of Europe in the 2020s. The Anthropocene looms over The Girl with the Needle, which is the best thing a period piece can hope for: a knowing, truthful look at the past from the vantage of our present.

The Girl With the Needle premiered at the 2024 Cannes Film Festival.

Grade: B+

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