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.