Horrific true events inspire Magnus von Horn’s murderous black-and-white drama

The Girl With The Needle

Source: Cannes

;The Girl With The Needle’

Dir. Magnus von Horn. Denmark/Poland/Sweden, 2024. 115 mins.

Even the Grimm Brothers would be challenged to pull something more malevolent out of the pot than Magnus von Horn’s The Girl With The Needle, inspired by true events which took place in Copenhagen following the end of the First World War. “The world is a terrible place,” is the over-riding, and overtly stated, message of this disturbing quasi-fable about a desperate young woman and unwanted babies. Two unrelentingly fascinating performances from Vic Carmen Sonne and Trine Dyrholm, and an exquisite black-and-white aesthetic which moves from leering vaudeville to something filthier and shameful, command attention.

Unrelentingly fascinating performances from Vic Carmen Sonne and Trine Dyrholm

A dark war-torn world being so convincingly awful is perhaps not the surest footing for a film in the marketplace at this particular time in geopolitics. Yet a tremendous breakthrough performance from Carmen Sonne (Godland) is surely a front runner for Best Actress at Cannes, where The Girl With The Needle competes. That would help this Nordisk-financed, Match Factory-sold production, which can also count on critical respect. When it comes time for awards, at the very least at home in Denmark, it should dominate in technical categories. The Girl With The Needle is the type of film that makes stars of its participants while remaining a specific taste in itself.

Competing for the first time in Cannes with his own screenplay (co-written with Line Langebeck), von Horn invites viewers on a tough, nearly two-hour journey with Karoline (Carmen Sonne). He makes no pretence about what’s ahead: this Danish-language film starts with a montage of leering, super-imposed, grotesquely gurning faces, and the sound of a bass note/horn that might wake the very dead from their tiny graves. 

Karoline begins the film by being evicted from her tenement rooms. She has no money and her husband Peter (Besir Zeciri) has been missing in the war for some time, although not long enough to be declared dead and get her a widow’s pension. She works in a sewing factory as a machinist making military supplies, where she catches the eye of the owner Jorgen (Joachim Fjelstrup). They have reckless public sex in a back alley, and a pregnant Karoline naively imagines they will be married. 

But von Horn has made it clear that this is no fairy story, Jorgen isn’t a knight in shining armour and nobody is going to clean up Copenhagen’s filthy streets for Karoline to walk across in her muddy boots and broken shoelaces. Jorgen’s Baroness mother sends her packing, and now Karoline is jobless as well as pregnant. There are many needles in The Girl With The Needle: broken sewing machine needles, knitting needles, needles that deliver morphine and a needle Karoline will use to try give herself an abortion in the public bathhouse where she encounters a kindly sweet-seller called Dagmar (Dyrholm), who certainly isn’t all she seems.

In the meantime, Peter has returned from the war and self-imposed isolation, so facially disfigured that he can only find work in a freak-show circus. He wears a mask that seems to shift — but then again, von Horn and DoP Michal Dymek are fond of super-impositions and iris eyes on their otherwise pin-sharp black-and-white canvas. Peter can’t keep food in his mouth and dribbles and screams at night.

Publicity material surrounding The Girl With The Needle makes it clear that Dagmar is operating a baby adoption agency where Karoline will work as a wet nurse, but it does take a long time for the film itself to arrive to that point – it could be considered a spoiler, given the other plot strands swirling around. Once the little shop of Hansel and Gretel horrors comes into focus, however, it does dominate the viewer’s consciousness. Dagmar, her ether habit and her strange seven-year-old ‘daughter’ Erena (Ava Knox Martin) are unforgettable creations.

But Carmen Sonne, in particular, gives such a nuanced performance of an uneducated girl with no options and no future beyond what she can carve out with her own fingernails. Her face registers clumsy emotion, desperation, innocence and despair, intelligence and stupidity, all flitting through like the clouds that sit over Copenhagen’s Dickensian smokestacks.

Dymek’s cinematography and the production design of Jagna Dobesz are standouts, but so is costuming: faithful, filthy, a status-signifier, all conveyed in black-and-white with such subtle processes to gives a huge range. Shot on 3:2 ratio on Alexa (also known as 1:50) – a format borrowed from photography – the image is almost as overwhelming as the predicament of its protagonist. It’s a format you could imagine the David Lean of Great Expectations using, if he had it to hand – this film is definitely related. But it’s dark enough to make the plight of Dickens characters look like sunlit uplands.

Production companies: Nordisk Films

International sales: The Match Factory, info@matchfactory.de

Producers: Malene Blenkov, Mariusz Wlodarski

Screenplay: Magnus von Horn, Line Langebek 

Cinematography: Michal Dymek

Production design: Jagna Dobesz

Editing: Agnieszka Glinka

Main cast: Vic Carmen Stone, Trine Dyrholm, Besir Zeciri, Joachim Fjelstrup, Ava Knox Martin, Tessa Hoder