Cinematic Releases: An Adult Fairy Tale: Border (2018) - Reviewed

It is common knowledge that most fairy tales were meant to be morality plays, used to teach children life lessons but hidden behind a layer of mysticism and fantasy. Grimms' Fairy Tales are a great example of this concept because underneath the fantastical trappings there are darker themes hiding in which one can learn about the sinister side of human nature. In the Swedish film Border (2018) this dynamic is reversed as the setting is depicted realistically and the fantasy elements are more subdued.

Border follows the life of a woman named Tina (Eva Melander) a Customs Agent in Sweden who has the unusual ability to "smell" emotions like guilt and shame. Using her extraordinary sense of smell she can sense when travelers are hiding something (like drugs, contraband etc.) and has a high success rate for finding out about crimes. Tina has atypical facial and body structure that was attributed to her being born with a chromosome abnormality. One day a man with similar attributes crosses the border and Tina is surprised to discover that she cannot smell any emotions from him. This causes her to become intrigued with him and she starts investigating him and his lifestyle.

On the surface, Border plays out like a police procedural--via a subplot with Tina helping the police investigate a child sex trafficking ring--and a romance as Tina becomes infatuated with Vore (Eero Milonoff), the "man with no smell" as it were. The more Tina is around Vore the more she learns about the truth as to what place she actually occupies in the world at large. Why does she look so different? Why does she have these seemingly supernatural abilities? Why does she feel so at home out in nature? Vore helps her explore these questions and more, eventually shattering her perception of herself and even humanity.

One could possibly find a lot of the subject matter the film explores to be distasteful or uncomfortable, particularly the child pornography subplot, but I found the film to be sensitive in handling these touchy themes. That being said, when it comes to the budding romance between Tina and Vore there is a lot more moral ambiguity at play, because he has some aspects about him that pose interesting questions about the validity of revenge. This film also explores the idea of gender fluidity and roles but it isn't at the forefront of the narrative, more of an aside.

The make up and prosthetic work on the characters of Tina and Vore is fantastic. At first, before the film shows its hand, it might come off as offensive to real life individuals who have facial deformities but Border never makes the characters seem like they are lesser people because they look different, and eventually these differences are celebrated as beautiful and life-affirming. Tina has a lot of agency as a female protagonist, and I appreciated the emphasis on her achieving self-actualization outside of her romance with Vore. He is the catalyst, but she makes all her own decisions as to what to do with the information he gives her.

This is Iranian director Ali Abbasi's second full length film and his direction is sure-handed and mesmerizing. Border is full of gorgeously composed shots and breathtaking nature cinematography. Swedish films always nail that mysterious folklore aesthetic perfectly. The film is based on a short story from Ajvide Lindqvist, who is famous for his novel Let the Right One In which was also adapted into a movie in 2008.

Border is a whimsical and dark fairy tale for adults that tackles uncomfortable material in a fascinating way. 

--Michelle Kisner