Border is having its UK online premiere on MUBI from July 12th - August 10th, and can be watched here: https://mubi.com/showing/border-2018
To begin to get a grasp on just what the hell Border is, it’s really best just to dive straight into the basic plot (no spoilers as always!). Experienced Swedish actor Eva Melander plays Tina, a customs officer who uses her powerful sense of smell to her advantage. Able to detect heightened emotions like shame and guilt, she can pick up on any illegal activity in an instant.
However, despite this highly advantageous skill, Tina leads a quite miserable life due to the insecurity she constantly feels about her facial deformities and the weight of her exploitative roommate/boyfriend Roland (Jörgen Thorsson), who harasses her and exploits her fear of being left completely alone.
This is until she meets Vore (Eero Milonoff, also a veteran Swedish actor), a mysterious, slightly unsettling figure who appears to share Tina’s distinct features and nasal ability. As Tina becomes increasingly intrigued by Vore, whilst also being hired by the police to use her skills in investigating a troubling criminal network, the identity she once believed she had begins to disintegrate, and she embarks on a quest to discover her true self and the cost of living in denial.
If you hadn’t caught on by now, this is a truly bizarre piece of cinema, one that defies any surface level comparisons to other films. But look past the fairy tale story and fantastical influences and what you’ll find is one of the most emotionally-driven and heart wrenching films of the past few years, capturing what it means to discover that you are not completely alone in your insecurities and alienation.
In other hands this story could have been handled in such a distasteful way, exploiting Tina and Vore’s physical features to an offensive degree. But director and writer Ali Abbasi, along with co-writers Isabella Eklö, and John Ajvide Lindqvist (the screenplay adapted from a short story by Lindqvist, who also wrote Let The Right One In), craft an intriguingly dark but increasingly enchanting tale that unearths an inner beauty that should resound with something deep inside us all.
Abbasi and co. succeed with flair in carrying the story’s most bizzaro elements without ever losing focus or allowing the film to fall into a misjudged exploitation flick, continually pushing beyond the surface appearances of Tina and Vore to show their inner beauty and struggle with alienation. This is not to say that the prosthetics (more on that below) are unnecessary to the story though. Quite the opposite, as they are pivotal in delivering some of the film’s most valuable messages on outsiders and humanity’s tendency to impulsively leap to judgements.
Of course, Border’s power also has everything to do with Melander and Milonoff’s incredible performances as Tina and Vore. These are definitely two of the most demanding roles that an actor has been tasked with, with both stars having to gain 40 pounds in weight before filming and sitting in the makeup chair for 4 hours every day to properly emphasise their physical abnormalities. The result is a completely face-transforming prosthetic that enlargens the nose and mouth, meaning that Melander and Milonoff had very little to work with in terms of physical expression, of course a major part of acting.
In an interview with IndieWire, Melander detailed how she instead learned to use her top lip and nose to emote, particularly in terms of portraying Tina’s sense of smell. And Milonoff also does a fantastic job in pushing beyond the prosthetic barrier to deliver an equally compelling performance, using a memorable half-snarling expression to capture Vore’s slightly disconcerting but ever so intriguing nature.
As we see the two characters meet and begin to form a connection, it’s impossible to resist their wonderfully unique chemistry. We see Vore sharing the same organic affinity for nature as Tina, with beautifully shot sequences of their forages through the woods providing an important juxtaposition to the cold, clinical rooms of the customs office and police station.
Their blossoming romance that we see alongside Roland’s continuing harassment of Tina is also evoked perfectly by Christoffer Berg and Martin Derkov’s excellent score, which balances sharp dissonances with warm harmonies and plays a major role in bringing the emotional weight to both central performances.
It would be very easy to see Border’s poster or trailer and dismiss it as a schlocky horror or an edgy, inaccessible abstract installation piece (maybe that’s pushing it a tad?). But oh how wrong you would be. Director Abbasi does something utterly brilliant by presenting us with these two completely transformed actors (serious hats off to the makeup department, who earned a very well deserved oscar nom for their work) and then challenging us not to jump to conclusions, to engage with them and understand their struggle.
And it turns out that relating and sympathising with these characters isn’t very hard at all, thanks to Melander and Milonoff’s enchanting performances, an excellently written script that juggles powerful moments of warmth and darkness without ever becoming jarring, and beautiful cinematography that naturalistically captures Tina’s quest for her true identity with a heart-warming amount of life affirming vigour and clarity.