When Ali Abbasi burst onto the international scene with the quietly unnerving Shelley, the world took note of a writer-director with a feel for creating an immersive atmosphere and a keen understanding of fantastical films’ capacity for dispensing understated social critique.
Two years later, Abbasi returns to the world stage with Border, a sophomore effort that bowed to ecstatic reviews in the Un Certain Regard competition of Cannes 2018. His new film, based on a John Ajvide Lindqvist short story, risks devolving into a mishmash of tones at almost every turn, yet manages to stick the landing with aplomb, thanks to its unabating willingness to defy genre expectations.
Centered on a customs officer with an unusually developed sense of smell, Border’s first half takes its time to introduce us to Tina (Eva Melander), a woman who is able to sniff out various sorts of contraband even if they don’t necessarily give off a scent. Her ability to simply ‘detect’ malignant intentions or shame uncovers a hard drive with child pornography that sets in motion a police investigation on which she is brought on to consult over the course of the film. Nordic noir is but one genre infused in the movie’s complex DNA and the ongoing police procedural works wonders to bring to light the aberrant nature of seemingly ‘normal’ humans.
Coated with unsightly body hair, sporting a scar above her tailbone, a nasty overbite, as well as a Neanderthal-like forehead and ‘snout’ – all of which are the result of impressive prosthetic work and Melander’s willingness to undergo a four-hour transformation in the makeup chair – Tina’s outward appearance does not correspond with socially sanctioned ‘normalcy’ or what most people would deem attractive.
A fish out of water in the human world, she feels attuned to the flora and fauna that surround her woodland cottage. A barefoot walk through the forest is lovingly rendered by Shelley DP Nadim Carlsen, who evokes an early sense of magical realism to hint at something supernatural on the horizon.
Border’s existential concerns and Tina’s search for belonging crystalize when Vore (Eero Milonoff) passes through customs. Almost instantly, she can tell something is ‘off’ about him but for the first time she can’t quite put her finger on what it is. Strangely attracted to this man whose physicality (though not necessarily his physiognomy) mirrors her own, she strikes up a friendship that blossoms into romance as she gradually learns uncomfortable truths about who she is and confronts the lies and abuse that were perpetrated against her to suppress her true self.
To say more would spoil many of the film’s surprising revelations, but the ease with which Abbasi infuses a social dimension with fantastical trappings pulled from Scandinavian folklore without ever losing his footing in reality while even allowing for intentional, well-timed comedic touches is nothing short of breathtaking. With only two films under his belt, Abbasi already bears the markings of a filmmaker who is supremely confident in his voice, which translates into assured direction and an overarching artistic vision that shines through in all facets of the production.
With Border, Abbasi has crafted a deeply empathetic fantasy that averts an uncritical celebration of alterity. Instead, he traces a journey of what it means to come into one’s own strange self while forcing his characters to take accountability for the actions they take and the ones they contemplate. His ambitious film is an elaborate and intelligent riff on the age-old ‘looks can be deceiving’-yarn that defies preconceived notions about gorgeous and grotesque, normalcy and deviancy and challenges male-female dichotomies in such a manner that the film’s identity politics are unobtrusively married to notions of gender transitioning.
Unassumingly, Border eases its way under your skin, into your mind and, ultimately, wins over your heart as a 21st-century tonal poem that embraces the hybridity and plurality that radicalism seeks to thwart. One of the most bracingly original films of Cannes 2018, Border is, without doubt, a disruptive blast that will be hailed as one of the year’s best genre films. Go in knowing as little as possible and prepare to be surprised.