In the interest of objectivity, I always try to go into a film knowing as little as possible — and sometimes that can be both a blessing and a curse. Such was the case with Swedish writer/director Ali Abbasi’s Border, a film that not only caught me off guard but left me frequently dumbstruck at what I was witnessing. Had I known more in advance, had I been adequately prepared for what was in store, perhaps I would have been better equipped to process what I was watching and thereby render a more rational critique. But then the sheer level of transgression that Abassi achieves would have been dulled, and my mouth might not have been left quite so agape. I’ll leave it to you to decide just how weird you’re prepared to get with your moviegoing time this week.
I’ll also leave to your discretion exactly how much you want to know about this film in advance, so plot synopsis here will be kept to a minimum. It’s not that this is a particularly twisty plot, simply that it’s so egregiously strange that I wouldn’t want to ruin the oddity for anyone willing to roll the dice on what I can only describe as a distinctly offbeat fantasy romance. But if that assessment conjures images of sexy vampires or lovelorn werewolves, you’re on the wrong track by a wide margin. Abbasi has something more challenging in mind, and while there are themes of attraction and attachment at the core of his narrative, nothing here is quite so simple.
The titular Border suggests — at least in a literal sense — the ferry crossing where protagonist Tina (Eva Melander) sniffs out contraband by smelling people’s hidden emotions. That unusual talent isn’t the first indication that something’s up with Tina, as her prominent brow and unkempt hair connote something not quite human. Still, we sympathize with Tina’s life of quiet desperation, a routine that consists of putting up with her parasitic quasi-boyfriend and occasionally visiting her invalid father, punctuated only by idyllic barefoot walks in the bucolic woods surrounding her small house. But then a man named Vore (Eero Millonoff) crosses her checkpoint, and in him, Tina finds a kindred spirit — though that may not prove to be a good thing. That’s all I’ll say about the story, other than to warn you that things get much, much stranger from there.
But the Border of the title is really talking about the often ill-defined line between socialization and bestial anarchy. What Abbasi is getting at here is a meta-commentary on man’s inhumanity to — well, pretty much everything. It’s a decidedly ugly story in many ways, and Abbasi doesn’t pull any punches. And yet, there’s beauty in his brutality if you care to look for it, and there are deeper themes at play in his narrative than one might gather on a cursory viewing. Yes, it’s superficially rooted in Scandinavian mythology, but it’s also about sex trafficking, humankind’s adversarial relationship with nature, the white lies that often hold our families together and the demonization of the Other. It’s basically a Grimm’s fairy tale with approximately 80 percent more forest sex and child molestation, which is admittedly something of a tough sell to holiday season audiences. There’s more information out there should you care to delve, but maybe you should just go see it — you can thank me and/or complain in the comments section later.