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Director: Ali Abbasi
Screenwriters: Ali Abbasi, Isabella Eklof, John Ajvide Lindqvist
Starring: Eva Melander, Eero Milonoff, Jorgen Thorsson, Ann Petren, Sten Ljunggren
Films that collide age-old mythology and ancient folklore with the hustle and bustle of the contemporary world and modern sensibilities always leave an impact. Societies across the globe were built upon myths and legends passed down from one generation to the next, on traditions of storytelling and imparting moral lessons to live your life by. Border, among other things, is an extremely twisted version of that.
The film adapts “Let the Right One In” author John Ajvide Lindqvist’s short story about a Swedish border guard (Eva Melander) who has grown up to believe she has a chromosome flaw but is in fact a troll. When a fellow member of this ancient faerie race (Eero Milonoff) passes through customs, Tina discovers who and what she really is and comes to realise what a dark place the world has become under humanity’s rule.
First, a word or few on Magical Realism…
Academic Matthew Stetcher defines it as “what happens when a highly detailed, realistic setting is invaded by something too strange to believe”. When ancient, forgotten and invisible worlds invade our spaces, what does this mean? Is it simply the human brain resorting to flights of fancy to avoid confronting something awful? In films like Pan’s Labyrinth, the lead character’s perception of reality is up for debate – Ophelia is going through a traumatic time of change and may have dreamt up a fantastical coping mechanism. Likewise, in Bridge to Terabithia, Jess has suddenly lost his childhood friend under tragic circumstances and would not be able to carry on without resorting to his imagination. With Border, I think we’re supposed to take things a bit more literally.
The prosthetics work here (over 20 artists were required to create two flawless characters), transforming Melander and Milonoff into the unrecognisable Tina and Vore but never masking the actors’ nuanced performances. It’s key that either an actor’s lower or upper face is left malleable; Melander is able to twitch her upper lip and nose as her otherworldly senses kick in and Milonoff’s beguiling smile can transform into a snarl when threatened.
The film features a troll sex scene, which really is something else. A troll’s anatomy isn’t quite like a human’s and leave it at that for the sake of taste. It’s not a sequence without purpose either, as it acts more as a key moment of character growth and self-actualisation for Tina in addition to being more than a little bizarre and incredibly funny.
Humanity does not come out of this well at all. The trolls and who knows how many other ancient and otherworldly species are all-but gone, persecuted, experimented on and driven underground by humankind. No wonder Tina is tempted to join Vore after a life of mistreatment and dishonesty even from those who claim to love her – her father (Ljunggren) is suffering from dementia but was never upfront about the circumstances of her adoption even before the fog enveloped him, and the man she lives with (Thorsson) expects her to support him financially while he breeds show dogs and emotionally abuses her.
Where this story takes you is unspeakably dark. Grimm’s Fairy Tales have nothing on Border, then again Snow White and Cinderella didn’t have the day jobs of sniffing out criminality. Countless tales have been told at night to children over the centuries, we now all live in a much more terrifying world – people are not monsters from storybooks hiding under bridges or just beyond the veil, they are monsters because they are human. Vore won’t forgive humanity for what they’ve done or what they’re still doing, while Tina is torn between finally feeling like she belongs and not being able to forgive her partner’s sinister plans on any moral level.
The horrific ideas and morbid material thankfully never gets too oppressive thanks to moments of touching serenity, both of the natural world and creatures who long predate the coming of man living in harmony with it. It’s impossible not to smile at Tina and Vore swimming in a storm, laughing at their freedom and holding each other to protect against the lightning that is attracted to their kind. The caged show dogs, as “man’s best friend”, tellingly react aggressively towards Tina because she is something other, in opposition to their masters. But wildlife, foxes and deer feel at peace around her as she is at peace with them – for a few moments it’s like she’s become the most unconventional looking Disney princess around.
Border is disdainful of humanity and yet strangely hopeful for life on Earth. It’s beautiful and grotesque, romantic and pragmatic, ethereal and grounded. It’s one campfire story you’re not going to forget in a hurry. People come and go across borders, through customs checks and between worlds ancient and modern; you’ve got to decide for yourself where you fit into the world.