Nobody likes customs officers. At worst, they violate basic civil liberties. At best, they make you feel like you’ve caused an international incident for forgetting about a flat, half-empty bottle of Fanta at the bottom of your carry-on. Ali Abbasi’s film Border (or Gräns in Swedish) has already set itself an uphill battle getting the audience to sympathise with lead character Tina (Eva Melander) by making her a member of border patrol. And then you get a proper look at her, and that hill gets even steeper.
Tina’s introduction is designed to be unflattering, if not downright grotesque. The harsh fluorescent lighting of her workplace highlights her cro-magnon brow and blemished, scarred skin, an incredible make-up job applied over Melander. Her lips curl into an animalistic snarl, and her nose twitches as passengers pass by her station. The dock she works at has no need for sniffer dogs: Tina can not only sense illegal substances passing through, but also “shame, fear and guilt.” One of those smugglers is a business man who is found to have child pornography on his phone, leading to Tina’s secondment to a wider police investigation.
Her unusual appearance and seemingly-supernatural abilities are the only element of the fantastical in Border, which otherwise takes place in a fairly grounded rural Swedish setting. The camerawork is handheld, up close to the protagonist’s peculiar profile during her work, the investigation, and unfulfilling home life. The muted, autumnal colour palette in concert with the genre-adjacent subject matter are reminiscent of previous films distributed by streaming service MUBI, who will handle Border‘s wider release, such as last year’s On Body and Soul or Thelma.
Then Tina meets Vore (Eero Milonoff), who possess a similarly neanderthal bone structure. They have a meet-cute at the border which is more like an courtship ritual shared by two animals, baring teeth and sniffing the air around each other. Throughout the film there are clues (Tina’s clear discomfort and difficulty moving in “regular” clothes, Melander’s sensitive performance attuned to the smallest tics as well as these larger physical elements) that the pair belong to an earlier, natural world. Some of the film’s most indelible images include Tina wandering the woods around the house she shares with a deadbeat boyfriend, befriending wild foxes and deer.
Then there are the moments of…not quite body horror, but imagery that’s a bit much to take at a 10am screening on a cold Friday morning, as the physical and biological differences between Tina and Vore, and the rest of the humanity, are explored in greater detail. The film’s narrative slackens slightly in the middle, as some extended expository scenes address and explain the central mystery of the character’s origins. It picks back up in the final act as all the plot lines converge in a manner which is perhaps too stomach-churning to accurately call “satisfying,” but certainly sticks with you.
Based on a short story by Let The Right One In author John Ajvide Lindqvist, Border is similarly grotesque, humanistic, sad and — in the end — strangely sweet story as that off-beat vampire tale. It is an exceptionally odd, consistently surprising film, one which recalls the work of Yorgos Lathimos in the way its premise suggests some obvious allegorical reading — fear of the other, in this case — but is in fact far more bizarre and morally knotty.