Border [2018] – A Genre & Gender-Bending Interpretation of Myths

Iranian-Swedish film-maker Ali Abbasi’s Border (aka ‘Grans’, 2018), the Un Certain Regard section award-winner at Cannes, is a twisted fable of outsiders which bracingly explores themes like identity, self-actualization, societal rejection, evil, and love. Part Nordic-noir and part horror, the film is based on a novella by John Ajvide Lindqvist (author of Let the Right One In) whose weird, creepy tales often compellingly re-interprets Norse mythology and folklore. Border opens with its protagonist, Tina (Eva Melander) sniffing the air, and her upper lip quivering in the process. If Tina isn’t wearing her customs official uniform she might be mistaken for a Neanderthal (with heavy brows and jutted-out face). But her physical oddities are simply related to ‘chromosome flaw’. However, there seems to be an added benefit to Tina’s ‘flaw’, since she is gifted with super-human olfactory power. She projects her hooded eyes at the disembarking ferry passengers and perfectly detects a contraband item: a bag full of alcohol. Naturally, Tina is bullied and sniggered at for her so-called flaws and gift (the teen whose liquor is confiscated mutters, “ugly bitch”).

Although Tina’s colleagues and higher officials treat her like a human-looking canine, she is not sniffing out the miscreants by the substances they are carrying, but by focusing on the reek of shame, fear, and guilt that’s attached to the perpetrators. This is established earlier as Tina discovers a SD card full of child pornography by sniffing out the man’s guilt. When not working at the ferry dock, Tina lives a tranquil domestic life in the densely forested Swedish countryside. She shares her humble abode with good-for-nothing pony-tailed boyfriend Roland (Jorgen Thorsson) who breeds muscular dogs for competition. She regularly visits her ageing, dementia-afflicted father (Sten Ljunggren) living in a caring home. Tina and Roland doesn’t seem to have anything in common and there’s not much passion in their relationship. Nevertheless, the cabin in the woods (belongs to Tina’s father) provides solace for Tina since she seems at one with nature and the creatures that wanders with in its realm. A beautifully evocative shot of Tina reaching out toward a fox gazing into her bedroom from beyond the glass window suggests her entrapment in the human world.

Tina’s quiet display of discontent changes when she encounters Vore (Eero Milonoff), a male traveler who walks through the customs. The man remarkably shares her distinctive physiognomy (similar forehead, large nose, etc). She stops him but doesn’t find any smuggled items on him. Later, Tina actively seeks out the mysterious and confident Vore, and invites him to stay in a vacant cabin closer to hers. Meanwhile, Tina’s innate gift is sought out by a higher police official investigating the child pornography content. The authorities hope she might ‘sniff out’ a pedophile ring operating from a quiet urban neighborhood. Tina’s fascination for Vore pushes her to begin a tentative relationship with him. The bond not only leads to ecstasy-filled animalistic couplings, but also makes Tina to question everything she thought she knew about herself. Moreover, the ostracized woman’s quest for personal identity reveals some difficult truths about Vore.

John Ajvide Lindqvist’s tales often tackles fantastical elements within a very quotidian, modern setting. It allows him to allegorize the mystical, non-normative features of folkloric creatures (vampires, trolls, etc) with the myriad differences existing among human society. In Border, writer/director Ali Abbasi intriguingly visualizes the Lindqvist’s world of dichotomies and differences. The domestic space of Tina within the dense woods elegantly embodies the dichotomy between human world and nature. The dualities don’t just exist in physical spaces, but also inhabits the liminal space, such as Tina’s conflict over reveling in sensual pleasures and making rational decision. Abbasi also effectively uses another Lindqvist story-telling tool: ambiguity. If the non-normative genitalia of Vore posit a kind of ambiguity in gender specification, the invisible border Tina crosses to embrace her true identity provides equivocal results. Tina and Vore are ‘same’ in a sense. But after gaining a companion who fits into the human-made parameter of ‘sameness’, Tina only goes on to discover the stark difference between herself and Vore. This reveals the reiterated lesson of Lindqvist stories: in this world of difference, self-discovery and finding a soul-mate doesn’t always mean you are less damned.

Ali Abbasi’s debut feature Shelley belonged to ‘natal horror’ sub-genre which had the potential to be latter-day ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ yet was never realized due to its poor writing. However, Abbasi did a fine job in building up the mood and dread. In his sophomore directorial effort, Abbasi’s visual plan blends well with the complex ideas in the script. The way Abbasi and his co-writer Isabelle Eklof merge the police procedural subplot with Tina’s existential quest initially seemed a bit jagged (the ‘pedophile ring’ narrative thread isn’t there in the novella). But this subplot does seem at home with a Lindqvist story (since the author’s stories perpetually deals with emotional and physical abuse directed towards children). Furthermore, the police investigation adds more weight to the narrative’s sociopolitical themes. The two central performances keenly express the experiences of social outcasts. Eva Melander especially provides a revelatory and profound performance as Tina. She mesmerizingly emotes through heavy make-up. Apart from comprehending the logic of the character she is playing, Melander also immaculately embodies Tina’s emotional life and her physicality.  Overall, Border (110 minutes) succeeds in realizing the general experiences of being an outcast through uncannily unique dramatic build-ups. 


Can You Ever Forgive Me? [2018] – A Surprisingly Poignant True Story of a Literary Forger

In Marielle Heller’s fact-based drama Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018), American actor Melissa McCarthy dons a serious dramatic avatar that allows her to be much more than a ‘wild-and-crazy fat girl’ going through the Hollywood comedic routine. Apart from her role in Bridesmaids (2011), Melissa’s choice of projects (gross-out slap-stick comedies) not only underused her supposed talents, but also made us question if she could ever shine in a role which doesn’t involve foul-mouthed crude shenanigans. Now her mercurial performance as real-life author Leonore Carol ‘Lee’ Israel casts aside such doubts. Furthermore, what’s interesting about Melissa McCarthy performance here is the way she uses her inherent comic persona to suit the needs of the role than assuming a superficial doleful expression.   

Based on Lee Israel’s 2008 memoir of the same name, Can You Ever Forgive Me is adapted to screen by Nicole Holofcener (‘Enough Said’) and Jeff Whitty. Lee Israel, an openly gay best-selling celebrity biographer in the 1970s and early 1980s, finds herself to be ostracized in New York literary world of the 1990s. The reason doesn’t have to do with her sexual orientation, but due to alcoholism and irascible, misanthropic behavior. The narrative opens at 1991, when 51-year-old Lee Israel, in dire financial straits, loses her latest job. She is behind on rents and couldn’t pay the veterinarian bills to continue treatment for her sick cat, which happens to be the only trusted companion left in Lee’s life. Her interest in writing biographies of obscure subject doesn’t secure any big advances. Lee’s agent Marjorie (Jane Curtin) has stopped returning her calls and on one occasion when Lee blasts through Marjorie’s office, the elderly woman advises Lee to be less difficult and, if possible, to choose a different profession (“You can be an asshole when you’re famous”, quips Marjorie).

Undismayed, Lee continues researching for her biography on Fanny Brice in the library. In one library book, she finds some letters written by the famous vaudevillian herself. Lee ‘takes’ those letters and sells it at a local book shop for some money. Since the letters’ content wasn’t that fascinating, she only receives little money. But Lee founds that there is a thriving market for celebrity memorabilia, particularly signed letters. Soon, she amasses old typewriters and begins her career in forgery. Lee cooks up witty letters and fakes signatures to sell it as the rare letters from literary figures/celebrities like Dorothy Parker, Noel Coward, Marlene Dietrich, etc. (she forged nearly 400 letters until she was trapped by the FBI). Lee also takes in an accomplice, a flamboyant and homeless fifty-plus con-artist Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant). Jack is gay like Lee, and the two outcasts develop a better rapport.  However, questions of authenticity raise red flags among the celebrity-obsessed, memorabilia-selling community, and the FBI begins to investigate this middle-aged cat lady.

If distilled to its basic elements, ‘Can You Ever Forgive Me?’ is less a character study of an uncordial author and more of a warm buddy drama and crime caper. Director Heller establishes that Lee isn’t a very likeable character from the very first scene. Writers Holofcener and Whitty doesn’t allow their central character to get off easy with ready-made excuses. The scene Lee meets up with her ex, Elaine (Anna Deavere Smith) in order to get some reassurance, was very well-written. Elaine with a touch of raw honesty reveals how hard it is to put up with Lee. The narrative also includes a romantic subplot, involving Lee and a modest bookseller, Anna (Dolly Wells). Lee’s fear of commitment is evident in her growing ‘friendship’ with Anna. But the problem is that these revelations just stay as that. These exchanges aren’t elaborated upon to provide some insight upon Lee’s psyche. It’s obvious the film isn’t about how a fiercely independent and creative person gets roasted by the larger community. The narrative hints at the loneliness, frustration, and frailties that simmer beneath the central character’s fierce pride. Hence the film would have been more memorable if the writers had given Lee Israel more field of depth. And of course, Melissa McCarthy’s empathy-inducing performance mostly makes up for what the script lacks in depth. Moreover, Heller’s nuanced dig at the superficiality of literary world (one that so often prides itself for non-idealized notion of artists) asks intriguing questions about the limits of celebrity worship.

The crime caper element in ‘Can You Ever Forgive Me?’ is actually very slight that there isn’t much anticipation related to it. But Heller and her writers excel when focusing on part affectionate and part acidic interactions between Lee and Jack. Veteran British actor Richard E. Grant channels bit of the mendacious, roguish charm found in his screen debut, Withnail and I (1987). Grant effortlessly moves between the comedic and tragic, while maintaining viewers’ sympathy for his character despite the frustrating lows. Lee and Jack’s final meeting is such a delightfully written, staged, and acted sequence that it becomes easy to overlook some of the movie’s prior flaws (the scene is also a good example of elegant dramatization because the exchange didn’t happen in real-life). The odd moments of tenderness, which flashes out of their devilish taunts, almost portrays the two as kindred spirits. Besides, the brilliant evocation of 1990s New York atmosphere conveys a melancholic tone without sentimentalizing the situations. Overall, Can You Ever Forgive Me? (107 minutes) is a light-hearted yet rewarding tale about professional failure and loneliness, bolstered by couple of magnificent performances.  



Under the Tree [2017] -- The Misdeeds of Resentful Suburbanites

Deep-seated trauma, hostility, and misunderstanding can reduce any grown-ups into bickering children as the preventable irrationality eventually leads to terrible consequences. In Icelandic director Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurdsson’s third feature film Under the Tree (‘Undir trenu’, 2017), we witness two dysfunctional plot-knots in which mean-spirted Reykjavik suburbanites do (and say) nasty things to each other. The film opens with the image of  a stale marriage, the couples in question – Atli (Steinpor Hroar Steiporsson) and Agnes (Lara Johanna Jonsdottir) lie in bed not facing each other, the sterile surroundings adding to their feelings of detachment. Soon, Agnes catches Atli on the verge of masturbating to a sex video, which happens to feature Atli and his ex-girlfriend Rakel (Dora Johannsdottir). Agnes accuses her husband of committing adultery though Atli says it’s an old video.

The kicked out husband/dad (the couple has a little girl) stays at his parents’ home where a different sort of dispute is going on. Atli’s mom, Inga (Edda Bjorgvinsdottir) is still grieving over her missing first son who has probably committed suicide. Atli’s dad Baldvin (Sigurdur Sigurjonsson) works as a choir director and finds it hard to offset his wife’s depression and hysterics. A beautiful large tree grows in Baldvin and Inga’s backyard, which has overgrown into the property of their neighbor, ruining the attractive and fitness-obsessed housewife Eybjorg’s (Selma Bjornsdottir) efforts to tan. Eybjorg’s husband Konrad (Porsteinn Bachmann) cordially requests Baldvin to prune the tree. But Inga who holds a grudge against Eybjorg delivers a nasty reply. What then starts as harmless pranks blows into full-fledged feud that ends with a bloodbath.

Meanwhile, Atli try to reconcile with Agnes (who continues to cold-shoulder him) and obtain the right to see his five-year-old daughter. In one hilarious apartment meeting scene, Agnes rats out Atli’s perversion in hopes of humiliating him in front of others. But the discussion largely rests on a carefree couple whose loud lovemaking causes unrest among others. Under the Tree is the kind of movie where you can easily guess how the stakes are going to be raised. You see Inga’s fluffy house cat and Eybjorg’s cherished dog, and somehow know that the escalating tensions are going to be intertwined to the pet’s lives. Kitty goes missing and Inga’s paranoia, heightened by internal turmoil regarding the unknown fate of elder son, makes her to do absurd yet vicious things. Atli perceives the dispute like any disinterested son watching his folks making a mountain out of a molehill. Nevertheless, he couldn’t serve as voice of reason since his own preposterous behavior (creating ruckus at Agnes’ work-place and taking out his daughter from kindergarten for a ‘picnic’ in the IKEA parking lot) threatens to escalate the domestic dispute.

Director Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurdsson brings forth an oddly satisfying experience in observing the suburban individuals’ mean-streak. The elegant new-age bungalows with large glass windows serve as a kind of box (or like a museum exhibit) that displays the worst of human specimen’s behavior. The humanity depicted here is decidedly bleak and full of cynicism, albeit humorous and meaningful. Sigurdsson may not empathize enough with his characters, but he doesn’t take a position too distanced from everything he is satirizing. There are some surprises in the writing, allowing characters to display some emotional spontaneity. For instance, the moment Atli shares with his father Baldvin inside the tent, erected in the backyard. Drinking bourbon they reasonably discuss Inga’s delusions and Agnes’ confusion and righteous anger. That’s a picture of vulnerability and understanding lying beneath the often exploding emotions of resentment. Perhaps, director Sigurdsson is touch too hard on his women characters. Inga, Agnes, and Eybjorg are often rendered insufferable, their spiteful behavior mostly labelled as fuel for the men’s brutality. The animosity developed over a tree whose eventual destruction obviously serves as the metaphor for humans’ intolerant attitude and inability to co-exist. The violent conflict also accounts for the ways grief and hysteria provokes the unsympathetic tendencies within us.

For director Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurdsson, Under the Tree is a change of pace from his two previous concise character studies, Either Way (2011) and Paris of the North (2014), although once again he employs absurdist humor as his narrative's driving force. The sub-urbanites aren’t well-drawn like Sigurdsson’s pathetic yet appealing central characters in other films. The glorious Icelandic scenery is also largely absent, hence the Reykjavik setting could be easily transplanted to US or Western Europe. The actors and their performances, however, are convincing. They bring naturalism to the heightened, cruel circumstances. Altogether, this story of humanity gone mad vibrates with palpable unease and a pitch-black sense of humor. 


A Private War [2018] – A Skillfully Directed Biopic of a Celebrated War Correspondent

Early in Matthew Heineman’s emphatic drama A Private War (2018) we see the renegade, eye-patch wearing American war correspondent (of Sunday Times), Marie Colvin (Rosamund Pike in one of her career best roles) arriving at a glitzy event to receive an award for her stories/detailed accounts of human suffering in the front-line of war-zones around the globe. But before lionizing Colvin through the speech she gives and the applause she receives, the film-maker cuts to exhausted and inebriated Colvin picking up a fight with her life-partner. At another occasion, an enraged Sunday Times editor (Tom Hollander) calls out Marie Colvin’s obsession to shed light on human loss by defiantly putting herself in harm’s way as a kind of addiction (a diagnosis which doesn’t feel wrong). This decision to not ennoble this daring journalist’s private and public life, and further look at her achievements without filtering out psychological burdens, battlefield chaos, and human vulnerability makes A Private War one of the most engrossing account of a journalist and the state of modern warfare.

Marie Colvin worked for London’s Sunday Times from 1985 to her death in 2012 (an event the narrative ominously hints to at the start of each chapters). Colvin was killed in Homs, Syria while covering the Assad regime’s massacre of the civilians. The film doesn’t offer a typical childhood-to-death biopic, but paints a portrait of Colvin through her late career wartime endeavors. The narrative, pieced together through series of assignments Colvin took over (most of those were vehemently discouraged by her editor but were eventually lauded), deftly processes the psychology of a woman who had devoted herself to be the mouthpiece of voiceless and a witness of inhumanity. The key factor in Heineman’s treatment of Colvin’s life is that there’s no due catharsis in having watched the heroic journey. He rather contemplates the damage this life-long pursuit for nightmarish truth did to her. And he further leaves it to us to answer whether we (humanity as a whole) have learned something from these ‘casualties of war’ (“In covering war, can we really make a difference?” asks Colvin).  

Based on 2012 Vanity Fair article “Marie Colvin’s Private War” (by Marie Brenner), screenwriter Arash Amel offers tidbits from the last 11 years in the life of Colvin. In 2001, Colvin lost her left eye while reporting from Tamil Tigers territory at the height of Sri Lankan civil war. The episodic narrative then moves onto the besieged lands of Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria. Punctuating each of these distressing vignettes is Colvin’s life back in the first world – galas, affairs, banal workplace gatherings, etc. Furthermore with each trip the war correspondent’s mental scars grow in number and the snapshots of horrific war imagery embedded in the memory overruns her reality (the presented dreamscape is simple but adequate enough). Colvin’s PTSD starts to worsen in the late 2000s as her bad recurring dreams keeps on playing a slideshow of traumatic visuals.  Accompanying Colvin in some of the dangerous undertakings is her friend and noted war photographer Paul Conroy (Jamie Dornan).

Arash Amel and Matthew Heineman neither overly dramatize Colvin’s life nor turn her into a ‘cool’ symbol of empowered women. As the title suggests the focus largely lies upon the fidgety side of Colvin’s personality, her battles with PTSD, alcoholism, and first-world apathy. Director Heineman is smart enough to lay out both the courage and the great toll it took on Colvin’s life while keeping up that courage. Although A Private War is Heineman’s first feature-film, he has already showcased his unflinching commitment for truth through his documentary projects Cartel Land (2015) and City of Ghosts (2017). Heineman has firsthand knowledge of what it means to be the messenger of truth at the personal cost of trauma (bullets have rained down on him while covering the Mexican drug war and Syrian civil war). Hence Heineman views Colvin as a kindred spirit. Consequently, he casts aside the myth and heroics piled upon her persona to deeply look at the raw emotional pain, brokenness, and anxiety she put up with to confront the worst of humanity. Like Colvin’s resonant words, Heineman ponders on the human loss made possible by day-to-day geopolitical games played in the insensate power corridors.

In the wrong hands, Marie Colvin could easily be branded as the white savior who 'cared' about brown-skinned people. But director Heineman constantly hints at Colvin’s privilege and ruthlessly examines her fixation to shed light on the ugliness of war. Moreover, Pike does an excellent job in embodying her character’s internal battle. Pike employs bit of dramatics to showcase Colvin’s mental instabilities and sudden fits of rage. But she’s super-subtle in scenes depicting Colvin’s equanimity and candor during the front-line reporting duties. One such particularly subtle and powerful moment is the recreation of Colvin’s call with CNN’s Anderson Cooper from a crumbling hideout in Syria. Jamie Dornan is equally brilliant as the photographer Paul Conroy, who risked his life to record the images that matched with Colvin’s haunting words. Overall, A Private War (110 minutes) deserves credit for being more than a uni-dimensional congratulatory portrait of a journalist. It unblinkingly looks at the endurance of a human focusing on humanity in extremis.