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Spoiler warning: this article reveals key plot developments 

True to its title, everything about the Swedish-set Border feels like it exists on the edge of two different worlds. Revolving around a customs officer with an apparent facial disfigurement who can sense shame in others, the film uses this premise as the basis for a Nordic magic realist fable about identity, one in which the character’s journey to understand herself is mirrored in co-writer/director Ali Abbasi’s refusal to confine the film to a specific genre or style. Adapted from Let the Right One In author John Ajvide Lindqvist’s 2011 novella of the same name, the film exists in a cinematic hinterland comprising the mundane and the mythological and Abbasi — who grew up in Iran before relocating to Scandinavia in his 20s to study architecture — revels in the freedom this affords him, creating a sort of non-binary movie that reflects our complex times. 

For its first hour, for instance, the film plays its cards close to its chest as we get to know Tina, played by Eva Melander. Although Abbasi hints at the fantastical with close-ups that suggest her professional proficiency might be contingent on some kind of preternatural abilities, the film throws us off the scent by rooting everything in a plausible reality. Her apparent disfigurement is explained away as a chromosome mutation and her demeanour is consistent with popular understandings of body dysmorphia and the psychological effect internalising feelings of otherness can have. Even her enlistment by the police to help with an investigation into a local peadophile ring suggests the film is going to be more of a straightforward police procedural than a horror or fantasy movie. But after meeting Vore (Finnish actor Eero Milonoff), whose features mirror her own, the film gradually starts chipping away at this more conventional approach — which is something Abbasi really liked about Lindqvist’s source story. 

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“He’s like the Stephen King of Scandinavia,” explains the filmmaker, who saw some overlaps with his own sensibility, having previously made a horror film — 2016’s Shelley — about a surrogate pregnancy gone wrong. “He does intelligent horror fantasy pieces that are sophisticated and pitches problems that could be fundamental problems — like loneliness or alienation — and puts them in a genre vehicle. But what was specifically interesting about Border was that it was very much a character piece. His other stuff, it has very clever plots full of twists and turns and so forth, but this is very much about this one character. She’s lonely, she feels like a freak, she feels like an outsider and she wants to belong. I felt that it was really fascinating to have this kind of simplicity and then go to this eccentric universe.”

The eccentricity of the universe is revealed in an eye-opening, gender-fluid sex scene that takes place between Tina and Vore in the woods to which she’s continually drawn. (Final warning to stop reading if you don’t want the movie spoiled.) In a kind of Cronenbergian twist — if David Cronenberg dealt in fairytale mythology — Tina discovers she’s not actually human, but a troll. “That’s a big reveal in the novella as well,” says Abbasi, “but in the novella the setting is much more human-like. They have sex in a house and that didn’t make sense to me if you want to imply she has this animalistic side. We’re not just revealing she’s different and is discovering her sexuality, we’re seeing for the first time that she may be animalistic on a fundamental level. They have this connection even before they start figuring out who they are. What we talked about apropos the reality of the story was that we should not talk about this as a fantasy movie or a troll movie, but as a movie about two characters who have wants and needs and their own logic. Everything else will be derived from that logic no matter how strange it is. We’re not trying to impress people with our fantastic penis design.” 

That genre twist also informed the casting. “There were two approaches,” says Abbasi. “One was to find someone with an appropriate physique and hope they could act, the other was to find the best actor and then try to deal with the physical transformation.” Abbasi opted for the latter approach after spending two years casting and deciding Tina "was too complex a role to be played by someone without experience”. In the end, make-up designer Göran Lundström — who was Oscar-nominated recently for his work on the film — spent between three and five hours a day transforming Eva Melanda into Tina, whom Abbasi cast after testing her on camera doing the scene where Tina meets Vore for the first time at customs. “I remember the person reading the lines said something to her and she blushed so much I could see it in camera. I thought if I was going to have someone who I’m going to transform on the outside, I want them to be able to transform themselves from the inside too.”  

Abbasi admits he also thought a lot about John Hurt’s performance in The Elephant Man (Dir: David Lynch, 1980). “I think The Elephant Man is a really interesting reference. I watched it as preparation — not so much for how to design the make-up; I was more interested in how emotional it was. That’s what made it so tragic and striking. The whole performance, his way of talking, it all gave you this impression of someone trapped inside something they didn’t love. I had that in the back of my mind in the scene where Tina confronts her dad towards the end of the movie. We talked to Eva about this idea that she felt she was trapped in her body, but she was also trapped in an identity. She has this sense of herself as a human being that didn’t feel right and that has contributed to who she is.” 

Abbasi reckons that approach also helped remove the barrier that can sometimes exist in fantasy and comic book films that function as metaphors for outsiders and misfits. “When you have this kind of character who is not perfect somehow, we tend to look at this character from a distance. We don’t always get close to them. For us, the fundamental aspect of the movie was to take the perspective of 'the other'. We wanted to be with her, looking at us. That was what we built the movie on and how we told the story from the beginning.” 

Alistair Harkness
Film Critic - The Scotsman
March 2019

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