My notes on Gräns (Border), out in UK cinemas March 9.
Tina (Eva Melander) is a remarkably ugly woman – with almost neanderthal features – who has nevertheless found a job she has a peculiar talent for, as a border guard at a ferry terminal in the North of Sweden, where she can literally sniff a wrong ‘un passing her by, whether it be a nervy teen with a stash of contraband liquour or a smug executive type with a flashcard of kiddie porn stashed in his mobile phone. She lives in a cabin in the woods with Roland (Jorgen Thorsson), a slacker dog-breeder who’d sleep with her if she let him, and regularly visits her elderly father (Sten Ljunggren) in a care home. But she feels a call of the wild – wanting to walk barefoot in the woods, or swim naked in a lake (which reveals the extent of her physical peculiarities, down to a scar where a tail might have been removed). Her life is shaken up when a policewoman (Ann Petren) asks her to help follow up on the child pornography case and try to apply what amounts to a super-power to tracking down the ring responsible … but also when leather-jacketed Vore (Eero Milonoff) shambles past her station, and she recognises that he shares several features of her condition, though a strip-search also reveals the male-presenting hairy goon to be a near-hermaphrodite, and has a firmer idea of her place in the world than she does, and wants her to embrace elements of what turn out to be her heritage which are liberating but also very dark indeed.
Based on a novella by John Ajvide Lindqvist (Let the Right One In) and directed by Ali Abbasi (Shelley) – who collaborated with Isabella Eklof (Holiday) on the script – this fits into the developing filmographies of all three. It’s another tale of a non-human trying to find a way of living in civilisation, but sensing that might not be possible, but uses less familiar mythology than the vampire business of Let the Right One In – the key line where Vore tells Tina what she is risks getting a laugh, since they belong to a species of cryptid usually taken about as seriously as leprechauns, but the development of the theme is exemplary, down to a truly extraordinary sex scene between the principles and a fully-worked out life cycle for the beings (which links Border to a clutch of recent films, including The Hallow and The Hole in the Ground, though it takes a very different approach to a disturbing fairy tale). As the blunt title suggests, it’s all about living in a limbo between certainties … and, for Abassi especially, has a clear relevance to real world issues about immigration, integration and the friction of cultures which need to mingle but find some borders impossible to cross.
Tina is actually one of the most admirable film heroines of recent years, though Melander – in a justifiably Oscar-nominated make-up job – plays her without begging for sympathy … in the end she’s better for being between two worlds than she would be embracing either of her possible heritages, though that’s obviously not going to make her happy. When she finds out about her true nature, she is freed of shame she has felt living as a human – but also recognises that being a monster entails acting in a monstrous manner she can never bring herself to (though Vore, who has a trickster smile, fully embraces his own awfulness). At one point, Tina kicks out her token boyfriend and his widescreen TV, rejecting her attempts to fit in, but she bristles when Vore sneers at her for having a job and a house, and there’s a real dignity in her skill in a gig that makes people uncomfortable but is obviously valued and valuable and the film has enough breathing room to show her reading novels, singing along to the radio and doing small chores with as much pleasure as she finds in returning to the earthy, bosky, primal, watery environment of her kind. It’s a suspense thriller, with an intricate plot that eventually winds all its strands together, and a disturbing horror movie, which has a real ruthlessness in following horrible sub-plots to logical ends, but at heart it’s a moving, thought-provoking character study.
Sounds horrendous. A film to watch for those who need to do and sound “worthy”. Plus the characters look like my neighbours. I’m being told in review after review that the best part is the sex scene. But I don’t want to go to the cinema to watch my neighbours having sex. Pretty people having sex is bad enough. I just couldn’t watch this. Looks awful – but as I say, terribly, terribly, worthy.