Border is about alienation and a desire to belong; it’s also a wondrously offbeat and moving romance that mines universal experiences from highly specific and literally otherworldly scenarios.
Winner of the Un Certain Regard prize at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, the Swedish film Border is a savvy mixture of social realism, supernatural horror and melodrama. It’s a psychological thriller and also a fairytale, a kind of Nordic noir about how one self-identifies amid a push and pull between good and evil. Director Ali Abbasi, a native Iranian now living and working in Scandinavia, displays a unique ability to subvert genre conventions, taking broad clichés and familiar archetypes and twisting them in idiosyncratic ways. The same can be said for his co-screenwriter, John Ajvide Lindqvist, the novelist who wrote the film’s source material and whose book Let the Right One In inspired not one but two imaginative, genre-bending vampire movies. Like Let Right One In, Border is about alienation and a desire to belong; it’s also a wondrously offbeat and moving romance that mines universal experiences from highly specific and literally otherworldly scenarios.
You don’t often see screen protagonists like Tina (Eva Melander). Her protruding forehead, misshapen nose and tiny chin are created by some extensive and grueling makeup work, a four-hour process Melander had to endure each day on set. The filmmakers don’t draw any direct attention to Tina’s appearance, though, focusing instead on the exemplary job she does as a customs officer assigned to a remote Swedish port, where she has a perfect record of apprehending would-be smugglers. Her abilities seem to stem from the psychic connection she has with the natural world, which Abbasi brings to life with stunning magical realism. Her barefoot walks through the snowy woods are often accompanied by foxes and elk that seem to appear out of thin air. Connected as is she with animals, she has a harder time with humans. Outside of her loser boyfriend (Jörgen Thorsson) and dementia-stricken father (Sten Ljunggren), Tina lacks companionship, and the ache of her loneliness is felt in the film’s minimalist compositions.
Enter the stranger Vore (Eero Milonoff), who, like Eli from Let the Right One In, is definitely more than he appears to be. This particular theme—that people often have a spiritual, psychological and emotional depth that extends beyond a physical presence—is a Lindqvist staple, and it’s the one to which Abbasi is most drawn. After stopping Vore during a routine check, the two become drawn together romantically, and Tina finally discovers someone who seems to complete her in every way, bringing her feelings of alienation from the rest of society into much sharper contrast. Vore, who bears the same striking appearance as Tina, unlocks the secrets of Tina’s past and helps explain her strange, inhuman behavior, which Abbasi does not depict as a shattered illusion or fractured perspective but actually the exact opposite: Tina’s awakening allows her to fall into a sort of waking dream.
The experience is alternately alluring, erotic, thrilling and terrifying, which gives the filmmakers the space to explore a wide array of genre techniques. It’s a midnight movie for the arthouse crowd, full of elegant camerawork and the kind of elliptical storytelling favored by Swedish filmmakers since Bergman. Abbasi does occasionally get in his own way, however. Some of the film’s more grandiose segments have the aesthetic hollowness of a perfume commercial, full of pretty images but mostly devoid of interior meaning. The pulpier and more inane aspects act as a form of course-correction, and the ample black humor, which really takes off as Tina’s professional and personal lives start to collide, helps lessen the self-seriousness streaks the director can’t help but indulge. The story’s internal logic remains remarkably consistent, especially as the twists become stranger and more erratic, keeping character development at the center while allowing the weirder, scarier moments to color the margins. This movie, as the kids say, is a mood.
It’s impossible to watch Border and not reflect on the global state of xenophobia and immigration, but as the film drills down to the core of Tina’s struggle with her identity, Abbasi doesn’t rely on metaphor or offer any symbolic allusions to the world we live in. Despite utilizing fairytale and mythology to contextualize character models and diegetic experiences, his social commentary is straightforward, plainspoken and applies to the film’s alternate reality as much as it applies to our own. He plays up a fear of the Other, as well as Tina’s feelings of being Othered, in a way that challenges the audience and the assumptions we bring to the table. When Vore announces that “the entire human race is a disease,” it feels like a direct condemnation. But the ultimate tragedy—and perhaps the underlying fear—of Border is the notion that just because someone is “the same” as you doesn’t automatically make them compatible. In keeping with the allegorical parlance, if we all showed more compassion, the ugly duckling wouldn’t need to find the swans in order to belong.