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Border

(Gräns, Ali Abbasi, Sweden/Denmark, 2018)


 


“A feminist crime thriller? A social fable on the status of minorities? A Nordic fairly tale?” The editorial banner supplied by Positif magazine (no. 695, January 2019) hails a film that “blindsides its spectator at almost every scene” – especially, it seems, in relation to genre. And the build-up doesn’t stop there: “Our meeting with Ali Abbasi was equally surprising. The 37 year-old filmmaker received us in his Copenhagen apartment. He served us a tea of refined ginger, sweet Iranian cakes, but also a radical aesthetic discourse thumbing its nose at all political correctness”. OK! But Border is a curious, promising piece of work that doesn’t at all make it to the finish-line of its potential.

 

It starts well, in an unusually tweaked key of the workaday-quotidian-life genre. It could almost be a Dardenne brothers’ film in the very beginning, before the more fantastique implications start piling up. Tina (Eva Melander) is a customs guard on border control, sniffing out suspicious passengers and pulling them aside for luggage check. The sniffing-out part is literal: she has heightened senses and seemingly magical intuition; she can smell shame or guilt. This leads her, in one striking instance, to “know” that, somewhere on him, an ordinary-looking guy has child pornography stashed away. This is a forecast of some dread-filled plot matters to come further down the line.

 

Tina is also – but we are not sure, as spectators, whether to “make something” of this yet, to remark on it or not in our minds – singular in her looks. Her acting-out of sense-impressions and sensations – gradually escalating from nose-twitches to more extravagant behaviour out in the woods – gives her a somewhat animalistic aura, even though she is clearly fully functional (well, as functional as any of the rest of us) in the banal world of employment and sustenance.

 

Fiction calls when, one day, a similar looking guy, Vore (Eero Milonoff), passes through the security gate. Vore is at a different stage of personal evolution than Tina, living out a different sort of trajectory – and, as we’ll learn, he has a substantially different life-philosophy. He’s less in the social mise en scène of everybody else’s shared world, exhibits less manners in matters of personal space, and plainly speaks his mind when he’s not simply remaining silent. Vore is part of a mobile underclass, wandering from place to place, job to job (the film here making the first of its appeals to contemporary political situations and problems). But there is an immediate erotic chemistry between Tina and Vore, which is going to lead to a string of revelations (I won’t spoil them all here).

 

One thing I will let on, because the Iranian-born director Ali Abbasi states it in all his interviews: Tina and Vore are, in fact, Trolls among us (and I don’t mean pests on social media). Border has little to no interest in any Troll mythology deriving from literature or anywhere else; it’s a matter-of-fact, real-and-metaphorical premise, just like the vampires in Let the Right One In, whose author John Ajvide Lindqvist wrote the initial short story adapted by Abbasi and Isabella Eklöf here. The tone is a little like David Cronenbergian disquiet circa Dead Ringers (1988), when he was between horror pieces and “straight” drama (that is, if DC has ever made entirely straight drama!). “My family is Pasolini or Buñuel”, Abbasi declares to Positif, “ a cinema at once carnal and spiritual” – not Kiarostami, as he makes clear. Abbasi, as he elaborates, is drawn to this generic territory that is not outright pulp fiction, but at the same time not certified “art” market fare (and certainly not TV-style “Scandi Noir”, either, which he decries as the “Social Democrat café latte films of Northern Europe”!). It’s his second feature after Shelley (2016), which I’ve not seen, but already used the figure of an outsider (a Romanian refugee) within the context of a body-horror tale.

 

Where Eva is a Troll who has yet to vindicate and explore her true identity, Vore is already a militant Troll. That means he is has no love for the human race that oppresses his people, and is more than happy to stamp it out so that the Trolls can get down to merrily repopulating and ruling the scorched earth. It also means – after a tortuous plot twist or three – that he is entirely willing to help along humanity with supplies for its growing store of self-destructive perversions.

 

There’s a moment, while the film is still holding its possibilities in a workable tension, when we wonder whether Eva will come over to Vore’s side on this personal-political question. Alas, at a certain point everything snaps, and Border devolves – after its spectacular highpoint (which I’ll leave cryptic here) of expectation-subversion – into a more conventional moral tale about Good and Evil (not to mention Feminine and Masculine). That virtually wrecked the film for me.

 

Apart from pursuing this thematic option, Border also has more mundane construction issues. It’s one of those projects where plot seems to have been “reverse engineered” from a set of abstract ideas that needed embodiment and expression. So there’s an entire sub-story involving a suspicious, suburban couple with their IKEA furniture and their dark secret – the heavy-handed semantic opposition between this pair and Tina-Vore betraying (as Stéphane du Mesnildot commented in his Cahiers du cinéma review, no. 751, January 2019) a “schematism that is not to the film’s credit”, indeed!

 

What’s worse, we wonder for too long whether this entire sub-plot is a “police procedural” diversion – with Tina somewhat unbelievably promoted to on-the-street (and on-the-stairs) investigative work by a female superior who keeps sceptically asking, “So you can smell guilt, eh?” – or whether it will somehow hook into the main plot. Either way, the narrative contortion required involves too great an effort, and the film groans under its unlikely weight.

 

But let me be possibly the first person to recommend to any very daring programmer/curator the double bill of Border with Victor Salva’s somewhat notorious Powder (1995). Border Powder, anyone?

© Adrian Martin 5 January 2020


Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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