Border review – into the woods for a body-horror romance | Peter Bradshaw's film of the week

Ali Abbasi’s dark drama focuses on transgression and taboo as two troubled people living on the edge of society develop a strange friendship

In all its freakiness, Ali Abbasi’s film Border is something between a superhero origin myth, a cop procedural and a body-horror romance. It’s about transgression and taboo, crossing borders and infringing limits: about culturally constructed wrongness and socially deplored differentness – what anthropologist Mary Douglas called dirt as matter out of place. The movie is based on a short story by Swedish horror writer John Ajvide Lindqvist (author of Let the Right One In) who has here collaborated with Abbasi and film-maker Isabella Eklöf on the screenplay. Apart from everything else, it’s a satirical reflection on the minority experience, perhaps also inspired by the director’s own feelings about being an Iranian who has studied and now lives and works in Denmark. (His debut feature Shelley in 2016 was a fertility horror nightmare with some ideas similar to those in Border.)

Tina is a customs officer working in the port of Kapellskär in Sweden, standing all day wearing a bland uniform in the grim nothing-to-declare corridor as passengers off the ferry from Finland walk past. Tina has a developmental disorder; miserably calling herself an “ugly strange human with a chromosome flaw”, and played by Swedish actress Eva Melander with facial prostheses. But Tina has something that can only be called a superpower: the ability to smell contraband. When someone has got something they shouldn’t have – in their bag or concealed in their clothing – Tina’s nostrils twitch and her lips pull back from her teeth in a snarl. The suspect gets pulled over, sometimes for a visit to the back room with the snap of the latex glove. And Tina is always right. Her most sensational find leads to a call from local police to help them track down some very nasty criminals in the city, using her olfactory-telepathic superpower – a horribly gripping development.

Something else is going on in Tina’s emotional life, which until now has been stagnant. She lives in a remote woodland shack with boorish slob Roland (Jörgen Thorsson) who cares only about his dogs. Indeed, the film leaves it up to us to see how Roland is interested only in what he has mistaken for canine qualities in Tina. There is a very good performance from Sten Ljunggren as Tina’s dad, apparently succumbing to dementia in a nursing home, yet capable of sharp exchanges with Tina. Their dialogue scenes reveal an intelligent, indulgent, almost worldly side to Tina that the rest of the movie doesn’t.

Tina is astonished and obscurely excited when an insolently confident young man called Vore saunters past in the customs corridor, and is coolly unruffled by her inspection of his belongings: weird insect-breeding equipment. Vore seems very much to resemble Tina – could this be a fellow refugee from whatever mysterious Planet Krypton is the source of her powers? Vore is played by the Finnish actor Eero Milonoff with the same kind of facial makeup. He was incidentally the boxing trainer Elis in the recent, excellent Finnish movie The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki, by Juho Kuosmanen.

Refugees from another world … Eero Milonoff and Eva Melander in Border.
Refugees from another world … Eero Milonoff and Eva Melander in Border. Photograph: Meta Spark/Kärnfilm

Tina has always had a vivid, almost ecstatic sense of her apartness from other human beings and her closeness to animals, whose movement and whereabouts she can sense supernaturally. Abbasi shows the sensual abandon with which she wanders in the woods, removing her shoes for a greater closeness to the earth. And her lovemaking scenes with Vore are quite extraordinary. They are creatures from another world making intimate contact, and together achieving something that goes way beyond anything as commonplace as an orgasm.

Vore himself is a rebel, an outsider, qualities that he embraces and glories in, while Tina is still ashamed of who she is. Abbasi shows how important it is for Vore that he wants to eat insects, maggots and worms. It is another expression of transgression: foreign bodies in foreign bodies. And it is something like an occult ritual, an act that discloses something about the world that is hidden from the people who are not like Vore and Tina. The scenes of them together in the forest are like a pastoral from another world: sensual, celebratory, strange. They are the very different babes in the very different wood. And Vore actually has a great interest in babies.

The movie concludes by bringing its two narrative strands together in a way that might mean Tina would, by implication, be in serious trouble with the police, though noticing plot problems is beside the point. The strangeness in this film writhes like bacteria.

Contributor

Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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