‘The Girl With The Needle’ Review: Magnus Von Horn’s Dark Fairytale Retelling Of Denmark’s Most Infamous Serial Murder Case Is Beguiling – Cannes Film Festival

Magnus von Horn’s sophomore feature Sweat earned its director a spot in Cannes’ Official Selection in 2020, after his debut, The Here After, played in Directors’ Fortnight in 2015. But the festival of 2020 was canceled in the wake of the Covid pandemic, so von Horn’s place in this year’s Competition, with his third feature The Girl With the Needle, must surely mark the Swedish director’s coming-of-age. The film, starring Vic Carmen Sonne and Trine Dyrholm, riffs on one of Denmark’s most notorious murder cases to weave a poetic and dark fairytale about the people living on the margins in the aftermath of the First World War.

Dyrholm stars as Dagmar Overbye, the Danish serial killer convicted of murdering nine children — but suspected of many more deaths — between 1913 and 1920. One was her own; the others were handed to her by struggling mothers with babies born out of wedlock, who believed she was caring for the children and finding them new homes.

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The Girl With the Needle smartly follows one of those mothers rather than Dagmar herself, emphasizing the impossibly precarious situation women faced in the aftermath of the war. Karoline (Sonne) works as a seamstress in a factory making uniforms for the war effort. With her husband feared dead in service, Karoline begins an affair with the swarthy factory owner whose upper-crust family rejects her, and she meets Dagmar in a bathhouse when she attempts, unsuccessfully, to abort her baby.

There are echoes of Victor Hugo in the struggles faced by Karoline, and each of the characters she comes across — including, we’re led to believe, Dagmar, whose matter-of-fact demeanor suggests a woman modestly trying to make her way through an impossible world; doing what’s necessary to hold her head high. Karoline cannot be blamed for aspiring to do the same. So, she carries her baby to term and hands her to Dagmar. “You’ve done the right thing,” Dagmar tells her, and the other women who cross her path, repeating it like a mantra.

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Within a day, Karoline is told the baby has been rehoused with a respectable family. “Doctors or lawyers,” Dagmar says vaguely, and Karoline desperately wants to believe her. Still lactating, she offers to work for Dagmar as a wet nurse, to help her care for the babies before they find their foster families. It takes a while for her suspicions to grow, fueled by Karoline’s irrepressible urge to believe she has made the right decision for her child.

In the story’s margins, a pair of fairytale princes present themselves to Karoline. The factory owner, Jørgen (Joachim Fjelstrup), is tall and dashing, and seems to truly love her, but a villainous stepmother will burst this impossible dream. And then her husband Peter (Besir Zeciri) returns from the war, his face disfigured beyond recognition by the injuries he has suffered. He has a good heart, but Karoline struggles to allow him back in. He is scraping by as a freak at the traveling circus, and a ringmaster dares Karoline, in the crowd, to kiss this frog. She wants desperately for him to turn into her prince, but theirs will not be a happily ever after.

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Von Horn and his co-writer Line Langebek manage the impressive feat of balancing this story’s truth with its inspired fiction, and Michał Dymek’s sumptuous black-and-white photography somehow feels both dreamlike and documentary. This kind of delicate tiptoeing between extremes pervades all departments, with Jagna Dobesz’s sets — including a dripping attic room for Karoline caked in bird feces, and a glistening candy store above which Dagmar resides — similarly evoking both truth and fantasy.

It is because this story’s truths are so stark that this high-wire work succeeds. Dyrholm holds Dagmar Overbye so precisely that she can reach moments of true pantomime villainy without ever sacrificing her reality. It is sometimes uncomfortably difficult to argue with Dagmar’s twisted logic, that she is taking care of a problem nobody else is willing to engage. Von Horn staunchly refuses to speculate on her motives beyond those she broadcasts to the people who catch up with her, and Dyrholm is as confident a salesperson for those face-value justifications as anyone could be.

Sonne, too, deserves credit for navigating Karoline’s journey through its peaks and troughs. Karoline doesn’t exactly open the film as a wide-eyed dreamer, but Sonne makes us feel the genuine pull of her naive hope, such that we are as devastated as she is when it, yet again, collapses.

Von Horn has earned his platform with The Girl With the Needle, and there is plenty of prize potential within his film. It is also the director’s third film in a new language — Danish — after working in Swedish (The Here After) and Polish (Sweat). On the strength of its commanding filmmaking, it does not seem far-fetched to imagine a future project in English might bring him to ever larger stages. In any language, though, von Horn is a masterful talent, and The Girl With the Needle is an unequivocal and beguiling triumph.

Title: The Girl With the Needle
Section: Competition
Director-screenwriter: Magnus von Horn
Cast: Vic Carmen Sonne, Trine Dyrholm
Sales agent: The Match Factory
Running time: 1 hr 55 min

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