I believe about all art what Kafka said about books — that it should “wound or stab us,” that a work of art must chop like an axe at “the frozen sea within us.” Art, in plainer words, should hold the power to restore us to ourselves, by cracking open, perhaps violently, the darkest recesses of our souls and showing us who or what we really are.
Such a work of art is the new Swedish film by Ali Abbasi, Border, which Abbasi co-wrote with author John Ajvide Lindqvist, who also penned the fantastic 2008 vampire movie Let the Right One In.
Enchanting, terrifying and fantastically disorienting, Border is a latter-day fairy tale wrapped loosely inside a brooding film noir. It’s a hell of a movie.
At the center of the film is Tina (Eva Melander), a rural customs agent with a preternatural nose for criminal behavior. Tina, it turns out, can smell human emotions, a gift that allows her to identify people smuggling contraband by means of the shame and guilt pouring off them.
This is not the only quality that distinguishes Tina. She is also, in her own words, ugly and strange, thanks to a chromosomal deficiency. Or so she believes. What this means is that her vaguely Neanderthalic appearance marks her with otherness, and all that entails. She is an outcast, trying to pass. She is haunted by suspicions that she will never fit in.
Working the customs gate one day, Tina’s olfactory alarm goes off big time as she encounters Vore (Eero Milonoff), a man (apparently) who appears to share her “condition,” for lack of a better term. These two outcasts circle each other like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, at once childlike and bestial. For Tina, the shock of recognition is palpable and erotic in its brutality.
Vore tells Tina that she has been lied to her whole life — that she is not who and what she thinks she is. Their lives entangle, in ways that are shocking, beautiful and believably unbelievable. Tina moves him into her house, despite the protests of her loser boyfriend.
To tell you much more about the unfolding of Border would be to spoil its rich and primal treasures, which are by turns sacred and profane, alienating and entirely humane. And I wouldn’t dare ruin the mind-bending fuck-all of its sex scene. You’ll just have to experience that for yourself.
Running parallel to the mythological arc of Vore and Tina’s romance is another story that seems, at first, to have nothing to do with the Grimm’s weirdness at the film’s core. After sniffing out a chip containing porn in a cell phone, Tina is enlisted by the state to investigate a child sex ring. This detective work plunges her into the grit of urban degradation, which only further highlights her estrangement. This, after all, is a women sprung from the primordial stuff of nature itself, capable of communing with wolves (and Vore) in a way she simply can’t with her fellows.
As these two narratives dovetail, the real force of Abbasi’s directorial achievement is revealed. In the end, Border spins an old-fashioned tale about good and evil, but it does so in surprising ways that allow breathing room for all manner of very timely concerns (gender fluidity, racism, ideological possession, the misanthropy currently felt by so many).
Like Ingmar Bergman before him, Abbasi employs parochial, everyday elements to concoct, slyly and slowly, an interplay of archetypes that speaks to us in new, startling ways about the grand themes of life — in ways that are at once claustrophobic and dizzying. It’s a magical combination, like the mixing of cosmic and commonplace elements that makes you uniquely and darkly and wonderfully you. (Opens Nov. 23 at Broadway Metro)