In “Border”, Ali Abassi invents a world, where science fiction and fantasy coexist with reality in an unprecedented way, and by means of an ever-surprising story and fantastic chops of acting and make-up, the Swedish film keeps you on the edge of your seat.
Tina (Eva Melander) works as a customs officer – thanks to her unusually sensitive sense of smell, she can detect smugglers. However, Tina’s undeniable ugliness causes her life to be very difficult – she knows she’s very different from her work colleagues and other humans, but nevertheless tries to fit in. Things begin to rapidly change when she meets Vore (Eero Milonoff) – a man, who looks and behaves just like her.
Before I had the chance to finally watch “Border” (the winner of Un Certain Regard award during the last Cannes Film Festival), the stories about its dreadful ugliness pointed to either a cinematic revelation or a complete (but unforgettable) disaster.
Which one is it then?
Without the slightest doubt, “Border” is a win.
Indeed, ugliness plays a pivotal role in the film’s structure. Tina (as we learn – a troll) stands out from the crowd. She’s ugly on the outside, her face is deformed and her rare gift of smell indicates that the primal instincts took over the human side somewhere on the way. However, Abassi doesn’t intend to turn “Border” into a lecture on racism. The cliche scenes of racial intolerance are removed from plain sight, but instead kept in the protagonist’s head. Tina obviously went through more than one rough patch, but Abassi sees more value in exploring her already mature (seemingly, as the story reveals) form.
Hence, what “Border” really tackles is hinted in its title – a general concept of drawing a line on multiple levels.
Story-wise, this border dissects Tina into her human and animal sides. On one hand, she’s a troublesome individual, living in a bubble created by her dementia-hit father and using her unique smell to do some good in a world hostile to her (she helps out in a pedophilia investigation).
On the other, there is her true nature, awaken by a mysterious man called Vore. She provides him with a roof over head, and develops a blossoming love, which then causes her “troll” side to come forward.
Given the fact that “Border”’s main characters are trolls, this love is quite repelling to observe. That’s where Ali Abassi cautiously tests and constantly redefines the unease threshold (another border) of his audience. A part of the film’s unusual side is Tina getting used to her sexual life (and further experimenting with it), which keeps more than one aces up the director’s sleeve – like one of the most haunting and utterly disturbing scenes of birth in the history of cinema.
The success that “Border” can boast is how Abassi manages to hypnotize the viewer without the “that’s too much” effect (clearly didn’t work out well for Lars von Trier and his recent audience testing in “The House That Jack Built”). Even though many scenes ring a bell of an excruciatingly nightmarish horror movie, a certain line’s never crossed – a line differing a ridiculously riveting film and a goddamn on-screen mayhem.
There is no denial that Abassi wouldn’t direct half of the movie he did without both Eva Milander and Eero Milonoff.
These are two bonafide performances, where an entire set of mind borders needed to be crossed to achieve the result we get to see. An intimate scene in a forest (brings to mind “Antichrist”) or the animal magnetism between Tina and Vore in their first together were oozing fantastic confidence and tension. They repel and fascinate at the same time, creating a rare kind of a truly captivating complexity.
Tina and Vore being trolls is also a peculiar notion in terms of the Scandinavian folklore and pagan history, where these creatures looked ugly but showcased a good-hearted attitude. Abassi’s vision is opposite in that sense, because it plays with tradition. I’ll skip the details to save you fun, but the more the script meanders around Vore and Tina, more twisted folk origins are revealed.
Even the ambient music, used occasionally as a tension-amplifying tool, is Abassi’s ally in the film. The director’s hunch works flawlessly, each time allowing the ominous soundtrack of Christoffer Berg and Martin Dirkov to slightly amp up the brooding atmosphere and dense it even more.
All in all, “Border” is a unique experience that drills into your brain in multiple ways and stays there long after it’s ended. Abassi questions the very idea of creating borders – are we given an illusion of happiness in the world that restricts us? Or do we get to choose the degree of freedom that keeps the endorphines circulating? Either way, “Border” pulls you off your comfort zone and pushes to think – which is the greatest success a film can result in.
Dir. Ali Abassi
Hate Grade: 1.5/10