By Karen Gordon
Border, which won the Un Certain Regard award at Cannes this year - and is also Sweden’s submission to the Oscars - is the kind of movie that makes you ask, ‘Did I really just see that?’ The film walks the line between art-film and creature-feature, and yet in its bizarreness raises some really interesting ideas.
The source material is a short story by Swedish novelist and screenwriter John Ajvide Lindqvist, whose novel Let the Right One In, was made into one of the most interesting horror movies of the past decade. Lindqvist wrote the screenplay adaptation, and he’s one of the writers who adapted Border. It’s clear Lindqvist has a thing for outsiders, both human and mythological, trying to get by in a working-class world.
That’s where we meet Tina (Eva Melander). She works for the Swedish border agency as a security guard in an airport. But from the first moment we see her, our question is, who IS she? Tina looks like she’s part Neanderthal, and there’s a dull, brutish quality to her. She’s square and stocky and walks with an awkward shuffling gait, as if, with every step, she is having a disagreement with gravity.
She might look dull, but she’s really good at her job. Tina, it turns out, says she can smell out guilt and fear. Is it true? Whatever is really going on, she has the respect of her colleagues. What she doesn’t seem to have is a more nuanced sense of human behavior, or a sense of humour. There’s a heavy, deliberateness to what we see of her.
But in spite of her oddness, she’s not isolated. She has a life. She visits a couple who live near her and have recently had a child. She visits her father who, despite descending into dementia, worries about her and whether her live in boyfriend is taking advantage of her. And then she goes home to that boyfriend. It’s a routine, just like any other person’s.
Two things disrupt that routine and ultimately her life. First, she stops a man who is concealing a small computer drive with child pornography on it. Tina’s boss, impressed by the way she sniffed out this perp, wants her to stay on the case. This is something new. Tina will work with an undercover officer to see if they can discover who is making the pornography,
The second man she stops, rattles Tina. For the first time, she sees someone who looks like her. It’s not clear what she’s sniffed out about him because a check of bag doesn’t reveal anything illegal, but he has an unsettling manner.
His interactions with her are sexually charged, and creepily so. Tina is intrigued. She knows his name is Vore (Eero Milonoff) and that he’s staying at a local hostel, and on her off hours goes to visit him. There’s not much about him that reads as normal and yet she’s drawn to him and soon offers to let him stay at a guest house on her property.
There are lots of things going on in this film, from the normal to the creepy to the very strange. There’s a sex scene that is already legendary for its oddness, and will be found off-putting by some. But for those of us who stay with it, what’s remarkable about the film is that, even amid the oddness, the movie stays so grounded, and raises so many questions.
There’s lots of credit to go around on this front. Foremost is the work of actors Melander and Milonoff, who play Tina and Vore respectively. They embody what happens when actors fully commit. They play their odd characters as if they’d lived in their skins forever.
Iranian-Swedish director Ali Abbasi succeeds in keeping the film feeling like more like a drama, than an oddity or an arty creature feature.
You can read a lot into Tina’s arc through the film: everything from the obvious issues of personal identity, of nature versus nurture, to a woman who lives life on her own terms.
Border is more resonant than you’d expect, and one of the oddest movies of the year.
Border. Directed by Ali Abbasi. Written by John Ajvide Lindqvist. Starring Eva Melander and Eero Milonoff. Opens Friday, November 23 at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.