Even in a place as drab as the Swedish customs office, Tina (award-winning stage and screen veteran Eva Melander) stands out. There’s something about this short, stocky woman that, well, just doesn’t look right. Ancient scars trace her outlandishly round, rather puffy face. A gnarly overbite makes it difficult to hide her yellow teeth, and when she sniffs the air, which she does frequently, her upper lip twitches wildly. In her border patrol job, Tina is used to the nasty comments, the impolite stares. Almost nothing comes easily for someone like her. Luckily, Tina has an unusual talent. She can smell human emotions — fear, guilt, shame. She takes pride in her profession, and no one is better than her at (literally) sniffing out contraband. And so, even on the bleakest days in Tina’s life, she has at least some value here, at the border.
At this year’s Cannes Film Festival, director Ali Abbasi’s new feature Border won the top prize in the Un Certain Regard section. In its first act, the film presents an inauspicious portrait of Tina’s daily life, oddly reminiscent of Mike Leigh’s miserablist Bleak Moments (1971). However, Abbasi’s film is an adaption of a John Ajvide Lindqvist story, the Swedish author behind Let the Right One In. Fittingly, then, Border is yet another fantastically melancholic take on (in)human cruelty and life on the fringes of society. It’s a film for the wayward wallflowers of the world, the ones that won’t stop talking about Morrissey.
Who knows if the The Smiths even exist in the dreary world of Border? If only Tina had something — a copy of Hatful of Hollow, or perhaps just a hobby or a friend — to give her some feeling of connection to the world outside of herself. At home, she’s got a live-in boyfriend, Roland (Jörgen Thorsson), who can’t be bothered to think of her. At least he has some hobbies, such as eating cereal on the couch, wrestling with his scabies-infested show dog, and talking to mysterious strangers on the phone. Even Tina’s senile father (Sten Ljunggren), who quite literally forgets she exists, realizes that Roland is using her. She doesn’t mind. It’s better than being alone, she says.
Then Vore (Eero Milonoff) arrives, and everything is suddenly different for Tina. Standing in front of her, in the middle of the Swedish port, is a man with the same physical attributes: the aggressive overbite, the curious scars, the elongated snout. Yet, these cartoonish features seem to rest differently on his face. People don’t laugh at Vore: He’s too sure of himself, unnervingly so, to be the butt of anyone’s joke. When he insists that Tina and her co-worker search him, they don’t say no. And what do they learn? That Vore eats maggots — with aplomb, no less. More startling, however, is a series of realizations regarding Vore’s complex sexual identity. It’s this revelation that really pulls Tina closer to the forthright — if not a little charmless — drifter. What starts as a heady mix of disgust and arousal, soon turns into full-blown romantic obsession.
The titular ‘border’ references Tina’s job and the periphery role she assumes in daily life, of course. However, on a more self-reflexive level, the film seems to be commenting on its ever-shifting relationship with genre. At first it seems to be an ugly duckling story with a social realist edge, only to bloom into a gothic romance, a supernatural horror story, and a Nordic noir. For the most part, Border shifts through these modes effortlessly — quite the feat for a relatively young filmmaker like the 37-year-old Abbasi, here directing only his second feature. However, Border is not without its problems, most of which are confined to the last leg of the film.
In one philosophically-charged discussion, Vore tells Tina that the “entire human race is a disease”. When he says it, it’s tough for Tina, and anyone watching the film, to disagree with him, even if they wanted to. And here’s where trouble arises: Everyone outside of Tina, including Vore, is obnoxiously cruel. When the noir scuzziness finally rears its ugly head — a pedophile ring is thriving in Sweden, which (of course) only Tina can help with — it all becomes a bit too much. (Unsurprisingly, this plot thread is not a part of Lindqvist’s original story.)
Furthermore, the film’s success hinges on viewer’s believing that Vore is, in some way, a good fit for Tina. It can be a wicked, toxic affair as long as audiences feel their attraction. Melander and Milonoff turn in tremendous performances — not even heavy silicon masks can conceal this — but the actors can only do so much heavy lifting. Vore may look like Tina, and he may be living proof that there are others out there like her, but he also seems to be just as vile and nasty as the rest of the world. It simply too difficult to believe in their romance and the transformative power it has on Tina.
Another 2018 film, Michael Pearce’s Beast, proves it’s possible to strike a balance between toxic personalities and life-changing romance. Vore doesn’t have to be a goody-goody for viewers to get caught up in the romance. What may be going wrong here is in the way Abbasi decided to approach the couple’s sexual encounters. It’s unflinching, almost documentary-like, and, boy, is it ever nasty. Abbasi seems to be well-intended, as this comes off as some sort of political statement; it unapologetically confronts the audience with non-normative sex. In other areas, this bold and uncompromising approach pays off big time. However, by the end of the film, it’s clear that Border is lacking nuance and the sort of tenderness that should be the film’s beating heart. It’s strange to say that a movie about bug-eating, sexually fluid creatures who that can smell emotions is somehow slight, but there you have it.