Tucked away at Cinema Nova’s theatre 11, on a screen so small it could be better called a theatrette, is a bizarre little Swedish film that goes by the name of Border. As the room darkens, the screen whirs and narrows into spindly 2.31:1 ratio. And what begins is a snarling, guttural romance-of-sorts, which director Ali Abbasi assiduously strangles into a disquieting, then nauseating, moralistic thriller.
This asphyxiation is not slow by any means—it transpires in short bites and feels whiplash-quick. One startling character divulgence is so brief it feels almost hidden, slipped in between the sheaths of two standard scenic bookends. And that revelation is one that remains unaddressed until much later in the film, marinating uneasily in our minds before its resolution. It creates a slight nagging disquiet that makes us search for clues—why does our co-protagonist Vore collect those maggots? Why does he tape his fridge shut? Abbasi’s method is an exercise in the power of suggestion, weirdness, and fantasy. In Border, he tinkers with our imagination and expectations — and while ignorance is always unsettling, the truth, as it’s revealed, is probably worse, and weirder, than one may readily predict.
We open with border agent Tina (Eva Melander), who’s job is to literally sniff out illegal exports—alcohol, drugs, pornography—that people bring across the Swedish line. Her routine is an invariable one—work, then home, then a walk, or a swim, then dinner, then sleep. She visits her dementia-stricken father at a nursing home; she reads in bed; she shops for groceries. These are all mundane movements, but Tina’s point of interest lies not in her vocation, or her lifestyle, but in her face—she bears a Neanderthal-esque, animalistic likeness, a strange, unhuman unseemliness that causes a woman to peer at her in the dairy aisle, or a guy walking by to insult her in passing. In these introductory sequences, the film slithers right above the height of realism: we question if Tina is human: her success at her job stems from her ability to smell human shame, guilt, and rage. There are stitches on her tailbone, a slight, tendrilled scar on her face; she cannot birth children. But then she meets another like her—Vore (Eero Milonoff), a sneering, sinister vagabond. And the rest, well, I’m not going to spoil.
Though I’ll tell you this: Abbasi blindsides the audience, again and again, with each startling, new discovery, dragging us along the various twists and tangles of narrative strings and blurred genre signifiers, morphing between romance, fantasy, drama, and, intermittently, horror. However, Border’s plot, at times, feels too literal for its ethereal subjects, as if crafting a fairy-tale without an allegory. Accompanied by editors Olivia Neergaard-Holm and Andres Scov’s at times impatient chopping, and the insistent focus on narrative over style – to which cinematographer Nadim Carlsen’s handheld tremor adds a degree of urgency – the film feels too distracted to dive into the allure that can often accompany the inhuman, and the alien. As such, Border seems to skimp in and out of boxes that a more tightly bound, affecting film may tick, sacrificing the contemplation of its various half-hearted themes – of loneliness, solidarity, or justice – for its various twists and turns.
As a result, although Abbasi gains points in unpredictability and style, he ultimately makes Border’s peculiar premise forgettable, leaving us only with a curious sense of darkness, a little fear of the unknown, a shallow memory of a strange face or two, a lake, a strike of lightning, the smell of moss. And even that dissipates all too quickly after the credits roll, and the lights go up.
Border is now showing in Australian cinemas.
Valerie Ng is a sort of writer based in mostly Melbourne, studying something completely unrelated to film. She’s also a managing editor for Rough Cut and her words appear very sporadically on other sites and on @valerieing.