Border (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Darragh O’Donoghue
Produced by Nina Bisgaard, Piodor Gustafsson, and Petra Jönsson; directed by Ali Abbasi; written by Ali Abbasi, Isabella Eklöf, and John Ajvide Lindqvist, based on Lindqvist’s short story “Gräns”; cinematography by Nadim Carlsen; edited by Olivia Neergaard-Holm and Anders Skov; music by Christoffer Berg and Martin Dirkov; production design by Frida Hoas; costume design by Elsa Fischer; starring Eva Melander, Eero Milonoff, Jörgen Thorsson, and Sten Ljunggren. Color, with Swedish dialogue and English subtitles, 110 min. A NEON release.
Borders are boundaries. They can exist between places, between people, within people. Often such borders are made to seem natural, an inevitable means of protecting one entity from another. Tina (Eva Melander), the heroine of Ali Abbasi’s new film, guards one such border—she is a customs officer at the port of Kapellskär, giving or barring access to the Swedish capital Stockholm. She is no ordinary guard, either—Tina seems to have an extra sense when it comes to literally sniffing out malefactors. She fingers, with seemingly miraculous acuity, a teenage brat trying to sneak through some extra booze, a professional concealing child pornography on a SIM card, and Vore (Eero Milonoff), a hirsute, loping entomologist with an unnerving grin and unwavering stare.
Tina is used to being stared at—the cost of her gift is an apparent ugliness that arouses predictable reactions, especially from those she has nabbed. There is something bestial about her features (Melander wears prosthetics and effects makeup, having gained forty pounds for the role), a visible border between the human and the animal. The film opens with Tina on her way to work, carefully examining an insect before returning it to the plant she picked it from. At this stage, we may only speculate that Tina has some pedantic interest in natural history.
The first sequence at work does little to isolate Tina beyond her unprepossessing appearance—Abbasi uses even lighting and rhythmic back-and-forth editing between conventionally composed shots with just a slight suggestion of handheld camerawork to signify art-house social realism à la Loach or the Dardennes, via the deadpan of Aki Kaurismaki. We are sufficiently familiar with gifted or otherwise outstanding individuals in either life or the media and at this stage need not attribute Tina’s abilities to any supernatural or paranormal agency. It is only in the second sequence with the child-porn trafficker—when stylized lighting and extreme close-ups (over-) emphasize Tina’s alert nose-sniffing, lip-twitching, and teeth-baring—that she begins to appear qualitatively different from the humans around her.
Tina’s workplace at a port not only maintains the borders of a sovereign polity, but also the boundaries between land and sea, a liminal, amphibian space between civilization and nature. Tina furthermore maintains a boundary between her workplace and home life by living in the secluded, forested countryside. She shares her house with a freeloading couch potato Roland (Jörgen Thorsson) who trains dogs that are fiercely antagonistic to Tina. He frequently leaves for dog shows that are pretexts for philandering—in John Ajvide Lindqvist’s short story the relationship is entirely asexual after an abortive coupling; here, in one excruciating sequence, a drunken Roland tries to mount Tina as she sleeps.
The forest setting, the overpowering presence of the dogs in the domestic sphere, and Roland’s socially acceptable hairiness all blur the boundaries between the human and civilized and the natural and bestial. The house and its accompanying cottage, which she rents out, belong to Tina. Nevertheless, she is not at home in this house, whether as a place to eat, to share, or to retreat. Escaping the house and its human and animal irritants, Tina explores the forest, which Abbasi films as a hushed, golden place of wonder. She clearly has a deep affinity to this space, but many people profess a profound bond with nature and an antipathy to “civilization,” so again, at this point, there is nothing peculiar about Tina’s outings.
It is at work—that official border that serves as a nexus for the film’s thematic of boundaries—that the boundaries propping up Tina’s distinctly but obscurely unsatisfying life begin to fall apart. She senses something seriously wrong with Vore, but despite repeated riffling through his stuff, and a humiliating strip-search that pushes the bounds of legality, her colleagues can find nothing to implicate him. Well, nothing illegal anyway—Vore turns out to have female genitalia (another crossing or erasure of boundaries) and the same aching scar at his tailbone as Tina. At once suspicious, repelled, and attracted, Tina invites Vore to stay in her cottage in order to keep an eye on him. Roland’s barely concealed disgust reflects a generalized Swedish, European, or Western reaction to difference. Vore’s wry flouting of boundaries is an affront to the individual and group identities that depend on them for affirmation—whether it is as a woman or man, as a human, as a child-generating heterosexual, as a Swede, Christian, European or Westerner—and, perhaps more importantly, to define what one is not.
Readers who have seen the film will know that I have been somewhat coy so far in my description of Border. So, let’s say it—SPOILER ALERT—Tina and Vore are trolls. Not the online misanthropes the term usually signifies today, but actual demons of the sort that populate Norse mythology and Scandinavian folklore. Once this fact is known, Border becomes a very different film, and I wanted to describe the film as I watched it first—in real time, ignorantly, slowly acquiring knowledge—rather than with the smug superiority of hindsight. I was very lucky to come to the film “cold” at a festival. As is my wont, I chose the film at random, not reading the catalogue synopsis; there was no information in the opening titles that the film is an adaptation of a novella-length short story by, and had screenwriting input from, Lindqvist, an author known for his massive child-vampire period novel Let the Right One In (2004), filmed to international acclaim in 2008 by Tomas Alfredson (with a script by the author) and to somewhat less acclaim as the Hollywood remake Let Me In by Matt Reeves (2010).
Had I known all of this on a first viewing of Border—and most first-time viewers of Abbasi’s film will have such prior knowledge, derived from publicity such as posters, trailers, interviews, or reviews like this one—then I would have seen a very different movie. I would never have watched it as a deadpan, increasingly off-kilter “social-realist” narrative with plot “twists” that turned my narrative, generic, and ethical assumptions back on me. The most immediate boundary Border breaches is the one that separates genres neatly from one other, as it fuses social realism, melodrama, romance, horror, social satire, and policier. Had I known from the start that Tina was a troll, an ontological other, I would have read each scene, each encounter, each gesture, with this information and the horror genre in mind. Most importantly, I would have possessed more narrative knowledge than Tina, considered her from a distance, with dramatic irony. This would have spoiled Abbasi’s central ethical effect—that the viewer should share Tina’s initial ignorance and gradual piecing together of her past and identity; like the investigators in much postmodern crime fiction, Tina ends up investigating herself. The viewer should share and empathize with Tina’s viewpoint, adopt the position of the demonized, social other, which in this film becomes the “norm” against which the “normal” characters and their “normal” bourgeois world are shown to be often monstrous.
The kind of willed naivete in viewers that Abbasi depends on for Border to have its full effect is impossible—and has always been impossible—in the commercial cinema, which depends on the machinery of publicity to, firstly, get films funded (a name genre author with previous success in cinema is a lot easier to finance than wholly original material), and secondly, to get people to see them in a saturated market. Few entertainment companies would survive by withholding information about their product in the hope that enough people would be willing to spend their money on being genuinely surprised.
Border, therefore, is inevitably diminished on a second or informed first viewing. That said, it is still an impressive piece of work. Abbasi is not particularly original in grounding his genre work in a social-realist mode. Producers and admirers of the horror and fantasy genres have long pointed to the way the genre’s evocations of the supernatural or representations of the deviant can “comment” on or reflect contemporary anxieties, as if genre was a lure to trap audiences to engage with ideas and experiences they would pass over in a newspaper, say, or public television. A subset of these genres, inspired by Hitchcock’s Psycho and Powell’s Peeping Tom (both 1960), has rooted its horror in the banal everyday, encouraging critics to read the likes of Romero’s zombie movies, Craven’s slasher movies, or a host of found footage or faux-online mockumentaries as allegories for Vietnam, Civil Rights, the Reagan era, social media, and what have you.
In a similar fashion, the fantasy text of Border can be mined for modish subtexts, especially in a Europe that is becoming more intolerant by the day: the treatment of “illegal” immigrants and asylum seekers; the struggle for and reactionary resistance to transgender rights; the spread of transnational, often technological, criminality such as drugs, pornography, and pedophilia. The film’s major addition to Lindqvist’s story deals with the latter theme. Lindqvist’s Tina is so renowned for her ability to identify criminals that she is in demand as a consultant around the world, and is even headhunted by the FBI. This somewhat implausible digression is telescoped in the film into a bizarre subplot whereby Tina, having apprehended a child-porn smuggler, is asked to assist the local police in identifying the pedophile ring he supplies. This subplot plays like an uneasy parody of “Scandi noir” policiers so popular with European literary and television audiences, wherein a socially awkward but preternaturally gifted or intuitive woman is paired with a slobbish “ordinary” male detective, the exemplar being the Danish-Swedish co-production The Bridge, whose brilliant detective Saga Norén has a form of Asperger’s.
It must be said that this subplot is the least successful aspect of Border, its uncertain narrative status at odds with the tone otherwise maintained so successfully by Abbasi. It may be an attempt to redress the excisions of the pedophiliac aspect and complex focus on origins from the novel in the Swedish film of Let the Right One In. This subplot’s focus on a superficially young, attractive, IKEA-shopping, bourgeois couple who make babies available to pornographers and pedophiles is intended to contrast the monstrousness of conventional humanity with the great “humanity” of the “monster” Tina. Worse, she must cope with and act on the revelation that the babies are supplied by her soulmate and lover Vore, acting as an entryist in bitter revenge against the humans who removed trolls like himself and Tina from their natural environments, subjected them to physical and emotional “experimentation” to make them “fit” for society, and caused their parents to die after much suffering while incarcerated—experiences that, as with many culpable but unrepentant patriarchs accused of crimes against humanity when it is too late, Tina’s guilty foster father (Sten Ljunggren) forgets in the comfort of his alleged dementia.
There is much harrowing evidence of comparable social engineering from the nineteenth century to the present day, from the forced removal from their homes of aboriginal children in the United States, Canada, and Australia, the medical experimentation in the Nazi camps, the forced sterilizations in supposedly socialist postindependence India, or the forced adoptions of “illegitimate” children and the persecution of their single mothers in Catholic Ireland. Unsurprisingly, the mass traumas named here were instituted by imperialist or theocratic societies. What is particularly shocking about the “mad scientist”-style abuse in the background of Border is that it reflects brutal social engineering by the socialist Swedish state—which included compulsory sterilization of those with mental illness and physical disability—a country that for so long was held up as the model of a humane, noncommunistic welfare state.
Lindqvist overstates these parallels in his story, as a result shutting down the suggestiveness of its setup by localizing these traumas in, and thus limiting them to, a specific point and place in history. Without removing the specific focus of Lindqvist’s satire, the Iranian-born Abbasi inserts such past abuse in a continuum of state violence against the vulnerable. It is a continuum that implicates isolated, neutral Sweden in the global unrest that its border-keepers struggle to hold at bay. Nevertheless, Border is at its best when it keeps faith with the horror genre, when it dramatizes obscure, uncontrollable, and fearful changes in the body, the mind, and the environment, and painful shifts in personal and social knowledge and understanding. When an artist like Abbasi explores personal experience and subjectivity with empathy and conscientiousness, the “bigger picture” can usually take care of itself.
Darragh O’Donoghue, a Contributing Writer for Cineaste, works as an archivist at Tate Britain in London.
Copyright © 2019 by Cineaste, Inc.
Cineaste, Vol. XLIV, No. 2