I reviewed Border, the creepy and uncategorisable new film from Ali Abbasi, which is showing at LFF, for Underline magazine.
That link isn’t working for now, so here is the text of the review instead:
Ali Abassi’s first film, Shelley, was set deep in the woods, a supernatural thriller about childbirth in a remote location. His second film, which is playing at this year’s London Film Festival after earning the Un Certain Regard prize at Cannes, has some uncanny aspects in common with his debut, but it’s a decidedly singular film. Border takes place largely within a Swedish forest as well as the chill municipal surroundings of a ferry terminal, but it is a boldly unpredictable exploration of Scandinavian folklore. It’s in part a redemptive love story for some mistreated outsiders, but also a Nordic noir crime movie, and a truly bizarre horror.
If the film is uncategorisable, so is its heroine. Tina (Eva Melander) describes herself as “a strange human being with a chromosome flaw”. Passersby gawp at her rudely: maybe she’s not so odd-looking, but she’s far from conventionally beautiful. She has a bulky square jaw, and mottled, rough skin, a stocky frame and a heavy, snoutish nose. When she’s naked we see that her body is mostly covered with wiry curls of hair; there’s a mysterious scar on her tailbone and something even mysterious between her legs, where she says she is disfigured. For these differences, Tina has been bullied all her life, and her loutish live-in boyfriend is a freeloader rather than a romantic partner. No wonder she prefers the natural world to people. She walks barefoot through the forest, communes with wild animals and is drawn to the insects and fungus that lurk in the undergrowth.
Tina is quiet, kind, and diligent too, so she is respected by her colleagues at the ferry terminal where she works as a customs officer. And that nose of hers is what makes her invaluable. Tina’s nostrils twitch discreetly as passengers disembark from the ferry, and she can sniff out the guilty ones in an instant. They cannot pass, and must have their bags searched, which is when Tina’s fellow officers inevitably find contraband: booze, drugs or even a memory card filled with images of horrific child abuse. Soon, the police hire her to track down some wrongdoers in a meandering procedural subplot that becomes horribly enmeshed in Tina’s own life. But first, she meets Vore (Eero Milonoff). When he steps off the ferry, a bulky figure in a creaking leather jacket with a protruding paunch, messy teeth and another cumbersome nose, similar to her own, Tina scents trouble again.
There’s little more to be said in advance about the plot of this mesmeric film, without spoiling the surprises to come. Tina and Vore are kindred souls of a fashion, who come together not with soft words and kisses but with snarls and unspeakable feasts. It’s an unorthodox union, but one that that finally reveals Tina’s true nature, a painful secret that has been hidden even to herself. Border is based on a short story by John Ajvide Lindqvist, the author of Let the Right One In, and explores similar territory: not least revenge, and the collision of the supernatural with the quotidian. Border goes further, however, treading some very bleak terrain, as it nudges at the limits of humanity and sexuality.
Though the film keeps to a muddy, mossy palette of browns and greys for the most part, it’s visually overwhelming. The prosthetic work, supervised by Pamela Goldammer, is formidable, for one thing. The actors are unrecognizable in their new lumpen skins, and there is more bodily oddness to come as the tale unfolds. The cinematography by Nadim Carlsen is unflinching as it coolly reveals scenarios ranging from the humdrum to the repulsive. Closeups can be agonizingly intimate, and moonlit shots of Tina’s bedroom window create a tangible sense of a portal to an unearthly realm. There’s a special, recurring focus on open mouths, too: a criminal spitting out evidence; cumbersome tongues emerging to explore a lover’s face; the frothing grimaces of fighting dogs. And the forest itself is transformed by light, from a sunlit playground to a nightmare after dark.
Melander and Milonoff do some remarkable facial work here – a series of small tics and gestures that work with the prosthetics to reveal their own outward diffidence and private desires. Milonoff plays monstrous well, especially at mealtimes, devouring bugs with relish and revoltingly cramming a dish of smoked salmon into his face with chubby fingers. Melander’s role is more nuanced, and an exercise in commanding sympathy without conceding strength. As much as she is to be pitied, she’s resilient both practically and morally, and the heroine that this fairy tale deserves.
It’s not an easy film to watch at time, and almost every scene in Border crackles with an uncomfortable friction. Whether it’s the discomfort strangers feel when confronted with Tina’s nonconforming features, the queasiness generated by her uncommon sexual awakening or the disgust generated by the story’s more disturbing revelations. Abbasi, who also takes a writing credit here, carefully manipulates Tina and Vore’s rage, which is misdirected almost as soon as it is roused. The same could be said for their romance, which offers only a fleeting respite from the murk.
Oddly, perhaps, for a film that offers few of cinema’s usual pleasures, Border is a movie to treasure. Its idiosyncrasy and bravery are refreshingly welcome, and its intelligence even more. With its stark final image, it conjures a disturbing connection between the horrors of folk legend and the atrocities of so-called civilization. Well may we squirm, just like the maggots in Vore’s knapsack, or the guilty parties in the interrogation cell.