You might think yourself a savvy cinephile. Perhaps you’ve heard that Border (2018) won Un Certain Regard at the Cannes Film Festival and is Sweden’s submission for Best Foreign-Language Film for the upcoming Academy Awards. So you hear the premise of a customs officer who forms an unexpected bond with a stranger she investigates, and assume you have a solid idea of the drama and romance that will unfurl. You’re wrong. Even if you know Border is adapted from a short story from Let The Right One In author and screenwriter John Ajvide Lindqvist, you can’t possibly conceive of the wild, disturbing yet beautiful story that’s lies within. And better yet, its unnerving surprises are just part of what makes this movie absolutely marvelous.
Directed by Ali Abbasi, Border (also known as Gräns) centers on Tina (Eva Melander), an introverted customs officer who has a unique skill. She can smell fear, guilt, and shame. This allows her to literally sniff out criminals and contraband, including a hidden cache of child pornography. Using this gift to track down child traffickers, Tina is thriving professionally. But in her personal life, things are bleak. Her beloved father is slipping into senility. Her live-in boyfriend is more of a pesky roommate whose prized dogs snarl at her and whose hands clumsily paw at her. Tina seems uncomfortable in her own skin when around other people. But on her sojourns into the woods she is at ease. She walks with foxes, communes with moose and deer, and swims naked in a secluded lake. But she is lonely. That is until a chance meeting with a fascinating traveler.
Vore (Eero Milonoff) is a hulking man with a mischievous smile and an abrasive attitude. His lack of boundaries makes others uneasy but enthralls Tina. Theirs is an instant and unspoken attraction. And we feel it. Inexplicably, his asking her, ” Do you like insects?” is a line positively scorching with sexual heat. But beyond chemistry, they shares a similar appearance. Both have coarse hair, bumpy noses, an eager overbite, and a protruding brow like that of a caveman. As they get to know each other, Tina’s shocked to discover she and Vore have even more in common: they are both trolls. Raised as a human, Tina was told she had a chromosome disorder, and so harbors deep shame about her body and appearance, thinking she was deformed. Through her relationship with the uninhibited Vore, she begins to discover her heritage and sexuality, and learns to love herself. But if you’ve seen Let The Right One In, you know hoping for an outright happy ending here is an idle wish.
The movie’s mythological twist brews in Border themes about being an outsider, prohibited desires, and the return of the repressed. The script by Lindqvist, Abbasi, and Isabella Eklöfblends elements of romance, fantasy, crime-thriller, and horror to make a strange symphony of influences and moods. This is not a bombastic adventure as you might expect from a fantasy film. It’s paced more like a slow-burn crime thriller. Abbasi relishes in quiet moments that delicately reveal Tina’s journey of self-discovery. Melander offers a muted, but nonetheless moving and mesmerizing performance. Her downcast eyes and slumped shoulders establish Tina as someone who has spent her life trying not to be noticed. When she speaks of her “deformity” you see the shame flash across her face. By contrast, Milonoff’s flirtatiousness and frankness feels provocative and rebellious. With Vore, Tina sheds her shyness, growls and grows (in more than one way!) The pair shares a feral sensuality that is more electrifying than any love scene Hollywood has offered up in recent memory. In a standout scene, the couple runs through the woods naked and howling with joy. They are liberated from the chaffing constraints of human society, and their exhilaration is contagious.
Bolstering the swooning strangeness of Border is an incredible production design. The facial prosthetics of Tina and Vore are seamless and defiantly ugly. Abbasi trusts his audience to be compelled by his leads, even if they aren’t pretty, young lovers. He gives us lovers who are hairy, pot-bellied, and gruff, and trusts Melander and Milonoff will enchant us anyway. And they do. As do the creature effects employed sparingly but expertly. But to say anymore would be major spoilers.
Ultimately, Border blends genres with an alarming boldness and breathtaking tenderness to tell a tale that will shock and awe you. It centers on a leading lady performance that is one of the best in a year stacked with absolutely outstanding efforts, from Hereditary to The Favourite to Can You Ever Forgive Me? And the result is a fabulous film not quite like anything you’ve seen before. Border is so dark, bizarre, and yet sentimental that its very existence feels like a miracle.
Kristy Puchko (@KristyPuchko) is a New York-based film critic and entertainment journalist, her work has appeared in Vanity Fair, IndieWire, Nerdist, and Pajiba (to name a few). Ms. Puchko is a regular contributor on the Slashfilmcast, and teaches a course on film criticism at FIT. To see more of her work, visit DecadentCriminals.com