Animalistic growling, superhuman smelling abilities, the consumption of bugs… Sweden’s official entry for this year’s Academy Awards includes all of these things, and in large quantities. Part love story, part crime drama, Border is one of the boldest and most visceral films of the year. It tells the story of Tina (Eva Melander), a disenfranchised border control worker who can smell emotions. Quite literally, she can tell when someone is feeling guilt or fear, making her an expert at snuffing out smugglers. Tina’s life is pretty mundane, but it begins to change when she meets an intense man named Vore (Eero Milonoff) at the border stop. Tina and Vore both have similar facial features, scars on their backs, and an intense fear of lightning. Though Tina has always just accepted her status as a social pariah, Vore’s arrival makes her question her own identity and place in her society. It’s difficult to say any more about the plot of Border without ruining the experience of watching it for the first time. Suffice to say, it is far from a conventional love story, and it is likely the most daring and unusual film of the year.
Border is the second feature film for director/co-writer Ali Abbasi. It won the Un Certain Regard award at Cannes Film Festival, and will likely be nominated for Best Foreign Film at the Academy Awards this year. While Roma seems to be the foreign film getting the most press this season, Border should be the film at the top of your watchlist. The highlight of the film is its lead performances from Eva Melander and Eero Milonoff. Though the makeup team certainly deserves high praise for visually transforming both Melander and Milonoff, the actors’ ferocity is an awesome feat of acting. The rough qualities of Tina and Vore could have made them unrelatable, but both actors bring an acute tenderness that will keep audiences invested to the end.
For a film that focuses so much on smell (Tina’s superhuman sense of smell is what drives much of the plot), Border’s soundscape is actually one of its standout elements. The sounds of Border will make you uncomfortable: sniffing, crunching, growling, barking, grunting, and wheezing are all part of Tina’s daily life. Abbasi cleverly enhances Tina’s soundscape in order to give the audience a feeling of heightened awareness. For the character that awareness comes from scent, but Abbasi knows that smells are hard to transfer to a movie theater experience, so he uses sound as their substitute. At times, the sounds are even annoying, though purposefully so. The incessant barking of Roland’s (Tina’s boyfriend, played by Jörgen Thorsson) dogs is like nails on a chalkboard: loud and repetitive. There is hardly a moment where the dogs don’t bark in Tina’s presence. That is, until Vore encounters them around thirty minutes into the film and snarls in their faces, causing them to whimper and shut up. The relief Tina feels after this encounter is palpable, as everyone in the audience is also silently praising Vore for making it stop. But the ceasing of one irritatingly uncomfortable sound only brings out a new one. Tina and Vore both wheeze constantly, an affect that may have something to do with their odd facial structure. Tina also sniffs in almost every scene, while Vore is liable to growl or gnash his teeth on the crunchy exoskeleton of an insect when he appears. The film’s griey visuals are sometimes hard to look at, but it’s almost impossible to escape the cringe-inducing sounds of the film.
Border is not a film for everyone. There is some very disturbing content in this film, but Abbasi treats this subject matter without any judgment. To say the film is unpredictable is an understatement. Frankly, knowing nothing about the film is the best way to go into it, and it leads you on a journey with more twists and turns than a detective novel. The script is based on a short story by John Ajvide Lindqvist, who wrote the source material and screenplay for romantic horror flick, Let The Right One In. The magical realism that was present in that film is also displayed in Border, and to great effect. It is daring enough to challenge common perceptions of beauty and belonging in ways that are uncomfortable, yet eye-opening. If you’re not afraid to let a movie will suck you in from its first moments and keep you hostage until the end, then go see Border, because it will do just that. ★★★★½