Border is a grown-up fairytale and a love story, and while it’s certainly not for children it has that mix of light and the darkness that traditional fairy tales used to have, making them both beautiful and unnerving.
Myths and legends – those stories we really want to be true – entwine with an age-old crime, modern in its methods, that we really wish didn’t exist.
The second feature from Iranian-Swedish director Ali Abbasi, Border’s questions about acceptance and difference concern an indigenous culture mistreated by a dominant one – and whether it is worth trying to assimilate into an abusive society.
At its heart this is a touching story about unexpected attraction, belonging and love, that doesn’t shy away from physical and emotional awkwardness.
Neither does it shy away from the dark side – exploitation, abuse, vengeance and retribution, deliberately hurting the most vulnerable who weren’t responsible for what happened.
Based on a short story by John Ajvide Lindqvist (he also wrote Let The Right One In), Border is one of those films that’s hard to talk about without spoilering in some way, though I’m not going to spell it out for you.
An idiosyncratic modern fantasy, Border presents us with some genuinely unexpected twists that left me by turns shocked, delighted, misty-eyed and horrified. At times it is also frustrating, and I always wanted to know more. Every reveal raises more questions.
Tina (Eva Melander) is a Swedish border guard, with the ability to sniff out guilt. It’s the perfect job for her, singling out otherwise ordinary-looking travellers as they go past. “Shame, guilt, rage, and other things” she says about what her unusual gift identifies, though often it just reveals smuggled alcohol.
She looks different to her colleagues, but not hugely so. Her face is thick-set and fleshy, her skin mottled, her eyes hooded. She’s quite ungainly. But Tina’s abilities mean she’s well respected by her colleagues and she lives a normal if quiet life, deep in the woods. Her housemate Roland (Jörgen Thorsson) trains dogs (so actually not that quiet) and takes advantage of her. When she’s not at work or at home she visits her father as he quietly succumbs to dementia in a care home.
When she smells something suspicious the side of her lip trembles and peaks. One day at work she pulls over a smartly dressed man and sniffs his phone. It’s full of child porn, and a surveillance operation is begun.
Later she stops someone with features similar to hers, though where she is physically timid, and attempting to fit society’s expectations, he simply ignores them. He’s always standing too close, pushing into her personal space. When he smiles it’s a half-leer.
He’s called Vore and despite his oddness she’s hugely drawn to him, turning up at the hostel where he is staying. He feeds her a maggot. Eventually he moves in. Roland is wary, and his dogs are going bananas.
Tina and Vore (Eero Milonoff) have a lot in common – matching scars, a terror of lightning. She describes herself as “an ugly, strange woman with a chromosomal flaw”, he tells her she’s perfect the way she is, and it’s one of the few times I’ve heard this on screen or in real life and felt the speaker actually meant it.
It’s not so much the last piece of the jigsaw he gives her, as the information that means she can finally fit all the existing pieces that make her into a pattern that makes sense.
They are not exactly human, survivors of a history of hidden horror that the government refuses to acknowledge. Outside in the forest they have extraordinary sex in an extraordinary scene that is animalistic, unforgettable and also rather touching.
It’s an incredibly detailed and emotionally devastating performance from Melander. Tina moves through extreme vulnerability and fear, and then from tentative joy to exhilarating exuberance. Her awakening is gorgeous and thrilling to watch, as she finally feels at home, literally, in her own skin.
Vore is a long way down the line in terms of self-awareness; Eero Milonoff’s performance is an unsettling one of ambiguity and intrigue, his glances held moments too long. From his first appearance he is disruptive. Should he be avoided or are we doubting someone simply because he doesn’t look like our idea of normal, and doesn’t seem to understand social norms, particularly among strangers and women? I was never sure if I wanted Tina to run towards Vore or away from him, though he certainly sets her free.
Melander’s make-up apparently took four hours to apply each day and it looks incredibly realistic. There are also babies, and I can tell you now that yes, every baby is beautiful even if it has a beard.
They may have back stories of earthy religion, fairies, imps and trolls, but Tina’s forest home and haven actually feels steadfastly realistic rather than mysterious. She’s clearly at one with the plants and animals. And even before she finds out what she is, the forest pool where she swims naked is a place where she’s no longer ungainly, where she’s not watched or judged. It’s a timeless place rather than a magical one, which actually serves to place Tina and Vore’s lived reality, and that of their families and ancestors, into context.
The forest is still beautiful, particularly in contrast to the busy rainy city and the functional port where Tina works, and this is a beautifully shot film. But it’s the unfettered vibrancy of Tina and Vore’s glee as they find each other in the forest and the lake, combining with the timelessly natural surroundings, that make Border such a stunning film.
There’s that darkness though, as modern life intrudes and Tina soon has to cope with the possibility of everything she’s been looking for over her lifetime slipping away as fast as it arrived. “They know vengeance is coming” says Vore. Though we never leave his and Tina’s story to find out more about the acknowledgement of the existence of this exploited group in the “real” world.
Watch the trailer for Border: