Film Review: “Border” — Memorable Swedish Gothicism
Border memorably skims the border between reality and the supernatural, examining the irreconcilable division between the civilized and the perverse.
By Tim Jackson
Director Ali Abbasi’s Border originates from a story by John Ajvide Lindqvist, who wrote the the fine vampire film Let The Right One In. As in that story, the plot combines the mundane and the fantastical. Swedish actress Eva Melander, with the aid of some remarkable prosthetics, plays Tina, a border guard working for customs control on the Swedish coast. By normal standards, Tina is an ugly woman: buck teeth, mottled skin, a Neanderthal brow, slits for eyes, an unruly mop of hair, and a mannish gait.
Tina’s coworkers accept her off-putting appearance because of her uncanny ability to sniff out contraband. “I can feel shame, guilt, anger, that sort of thing” she calmly explains to her supervisor after having discovered a memory disc filled with child pornography in some luggage. This sparks an investigation in which she will attempt to (literally) sniff out pornographers in a sting operation. The results are promising, but the probe becomes complicated once Tina stops a second person, Vore, to whom she bears an uncanny resemblance. Played by Eero Milonoff, he is equally strange looking and oddly feral. He eats with his hands and breeds maggots, which he appears to savor as a delicacy. A narrative initially about acceptance turns into something much, much stranger: an adult folktale, a wild blend that combines horror and romance. One is tempted to alternately laugh and turn away from the screen.
Tina, out of pity and curiosity about her strange doppelgänger, rents Vore a cottage next to her cabin in the woods. She has a do-nothing roommate, Roland, who dotes on his dogs. She had resolutely declined his advances. Soon, however, Tina is gamboling through the woods, skinny dipping in the pond, and making love with Vore. These are uncomfortable scenes to watch, and they are only the beginning of what turns into a grotesque allegory about man and nature, good and evil, acceptance and fate.
The Scandinavians have proven to be unsettling storytellers, and Border is a superb example of their unnerving craft. I spent the first half hour of the film marveling at the prosthetics and trying to figure out just where this unusual story was headed. The plot twists are extreme and relentless — at times to the point of outright comedy — but the narrative is complex enough to keep the viewer absorbed.
Both leads gained weight for their roles and spent hours each day in make-up. Melander is an enormously gifted mime: her body language adroitly suggests deeply repressed emotions (particularly Tina’s restrained anger). Her powerful performance is alternately heartbreaking and frightening. As Vore, Milonoff is monomaniacal — he is a grinning beast. The figures around them are uniformly gray and rundown. Tina’s father is losing his memory; her supervisor looks as if she hasn’t had a good meal in days. There is beauty in this film — primary the world of nature to which Eve and Vore are drawn. Border is about more than the boundary that Tina guards. Lindqvist’s vision is Gothic, memorably skimming the border between reality and the supernatural, examining the irreconcilable division between the civilized and the perverse.
Tim Jackson was an assistant professor of Digital Film and Video for 20 years. His music career in Boston began in the 1970s and includes some 20 groups, recordings, national and international tours, and contributions to film soundtracks. He studied theater and English as an undergraduate, and has also has worked helter skelter as an actor and member of SAG and AFTRA since the 1980s. He has directed three feature documentaries: Chaos and Order: Making American Theater about the American Repertory Theater; Radical Jesters, which profiles the practices of 11 interventionist artists and agit-prop performance groups; When Things Go Wrong: The Robin Lane Story, and the short film The American Gurner. He is a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. You can read more of his work on his blog.