'Border' ('Gräns') : Film Review | Cannes 2018

Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival
Beauty can be beastly.

Director Ali Abbassi makes his Cannes debut with this timely reboot of Nordic folklore from the writer of cult vampire fable 'Let The Right One In.'

Beauty is very much in the eye of the beholder in Border, a genre-blurring Cannes premiere adapted by Danish-Iranian director Ali Abbassi from a novella by Let The Right One In creator John Ajvide Lindqvist. Like Lindqvist’s teen vampire classic, this Swedish-Danish production blends supernatural folklore with contemporary social realism to create a universal parable about tribalism, racism and fear of the Other. While the dramatic premise shares some DNA with the superfreak allegories of the X-Men series, the naturalistic presentation has more in common with the downbeat grit of Nordic Noir crime drama.

Abbassi, who made his feature debut in 2016 with the atmospheric but insubstantial gothic horror thriller Shelley, has expanded Lindqvist’s 50-page story with an additional subplot that lends extra conflict and jeopardy to the main narrative. The result is an ambitious hybrid creature that could fall uneasily between genre and art house audiences. But today’s well-received premiere in the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes should generate positive buzz and further festival interest. Strong lead performances, superlative visual effects and Lindqvist’s cultish fan following should all help boost theatrical prospects.

Tina (award-winning Swedish stage and screen veteran Eva Melander) is a malformed misfit, her face bloated and mottled, her teeth jutting and discolored, her body marked by ancient scars and scrubby hair. She works as a customs officer in a Swedish coastal city, where her superhuman sense of smell makes her an invaluable team member. A kind of human sniffer dog, she can sense shame, fear and guilt on travelers. After exposing a passenger carrying child pornography, she is recruited by the police to help track down his wider circle of pedophile accomplices.

But outside work, Tina’s life is tragically low on joy or validation. She shares her forest cabin home with her deadbeat boyfriend Roland (Jorgen Thorsson), but their relationship is a sexless co-dependency, not a functional romance. She also has a troubled history with her father (Sten Ljunggren), who is tender and affectionate but slowly slipping away into dementia with some family secrets unresolved. More emotionally attuned to wild woodland animals than humans, Tina has resigned herself to living as an unloved outsider on the margins of society.

But then she meets Vore (Finnish actor Eero Milonoff), a fellow outcast with similarly misshapen facial features and the same highly developed sense of smell. But instead of feeling shunned and devalued by mainstream society, Vore is defiant in his beastly strangeness, grunting and snorting and proudly feasting on live grubs. As an animal attraction begins to grow between the odd couple, Vore moves into Tina’s small guest cabin and reveals some explosive secrets about their shared heritage. These shock revelations lead Tina to a kind of liberation, but also to some painful truths about her family and decades of systematic abuse.

Border gambles on viewers maintaining their suspension of disbelief through some bumpy twists, notably an audacious shift into supernatural folklore that risks comic absurdity even though it has been heavily telegraphed. The unexpected appearance of a digitally generated penis also raises more laughs than Abbassi presumably intended. As a timely yarn about the mistreatment of minorities, both in Sweden and worldwide, Border is rich in allegorical layers. But as a thriller at least partially rooted in supernatural genre conventions, its relentlessly dour Nordic glumness drags a little. Social realism and magical realism make uneasy bedfellows.

That said, Border succeeds as gripping drama, mostly on the strength of its two lead performances, both doing sterling work under heavy silicon masks that required four hours of makeup to apply. Despite her lumpen disguise, Melander conveys an impressively broad emotional range, every twitch of her malformed snout suggesting deep layers of self-loathing and wounded rage. Both stars gained weight for their roles, transforming themselves into bloated ogres with the same kind of detail-heavy conviction that Charlize Theron brought to her Oscar-winning performance in Monster.

Glory is also due to Peter Hjorth for visual effects and prosthetic makeup supervisor Goran Lundstrom for making the story's more uncanny physical mutations appear realistic, even in forensic close-up. Taking its cue from Let the Right One In, Abbassi’s film cleverly masks it gothic fairytale elements in mundane domestic clothing. A couple of sharp curveball additions to Lindqvist’s original plot also elevate Border beyond genre trappings and into stranger, sadder, more generally relatable territory.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard)
Production companies: META Film, Black Spark Film & TV, Karnfilm
Cast: Eva Melander, Eero Milonoff, Jorgen Thorsson, Ann Petren, Sten Ljunggren
Director: Ali Abbassi
Screenwriters: John Ajvide Lindqvist, Ali Abbasi, Isabella Eklof based on a story by Lindqvist
Producers: Nina Bisgaard, Peter Gustafsson, Petra Jonsson
Cinematographer: Nadim Carlsen
Editors: Olivia Neergaard-Holm, Anders Skov
Music: Christoffer Berg, Martin Dirkov
Sales company: Films Boutique valeska@filmsboutique.com
108 minutes