A compelling interpretation of many premodern myths is that figures such as vampires and werewolves are ways of talking about the hazy and permeable boundary between humans and animals. A gnome or a changeling is an embodiment of the messy border between humanity and nature, the town and the forest, the rational mind and the sensual body. That’s perhaps why such creatures often inhabit liminal spaces—such as the trolls that harass those who try to cross the bridge under which the creatures dwell.
Ali Abbasi’s aptly named Border centers on Tina (Eva Melander), a customs agent at a ferry dock in Sweden. Tina, who quietly observes customers as they come ashore, has the uncanny ability to detect contraband using her sense of smell. But not only can she pick out the teen with a duffel bag full of alcohol, she can also sniff out an SD card full of child pornography. In addition to her keen nose, Tina has distinctive facial features: a heavy brow, a wide-bridged nose, and splotchy skin. Naturally, she’s the object of sniggers and bullying from people like the teen whose liquor she confiscates.
When she’s not pegging perverts and smugglers with her superhuman olfactory sense, Tina lives a quiet life in the Swedish countryside with her rather seedy partner, Roland (Jorgen Thorsson). Tina and Roland don’t appear to have much in common: While he watches television, she goes for barefoot walks amid the mossy beauty of a nearby forest. There’s something out there that Tina’s looking for, somewhere beyond the border between the human world and nature, and in one of the film’s most evocative shots, she reaches out toward a fox gazing into her bedroom from just beyond the window.
Border is based on a short story by John Ajvide Lindqvist, who also wrote the novel and screenplay for Let the Right One In. As in that story, human oddities turn out to have magical roots, but the filmmakers choose to reveal this gradually, extending the indecision the viewer will likely come to feel. Is this a realist drama about beauty-based oppression? Is it an understated sci-fi film about mutants—a kind of mellowed-out X-Men? Hovering in the uncertain borderland between genres, the first part of the film focuses on Tina’s life as an eccentric and outsider, someone who doesn’t clearly fit either into her society, or fit most people’s expectations of an easily categorized film.
Tina’s general disposition is one of quiet disaffection, but her demeanor changes one day when she encounters a male ferry passenger, Vore (Eero Milonoff), who looks remarkably like her. He has the same forehead, nose, and matted hair, but unlike her, Vore has a confidence about himself. This immediately intrigues Tina, and soon the two strike up an illicit friendship, leading to Tina inviting Vore to stay in her cabin in the woods.
It’s here that Border makes clear that its scenario is a fantastical one: a myth relocated into a modern setting. Like Let the Right One In, the story here concerns the remystification of the everyday, a co-existence of modern, rational life and an extranormal, extra-human reality that extends beyond rationality’s limits. The film’s slow reveal of its fantastical elements, which evoke the erratic, dreamlike strangeness of folk tales, makes them all the more unsettling. Tina’s discovery of her true identity dovetails shockingly with a subplot about local baby abductions, tying together the film’s magical-realist consideration of the inhuman and its drama about the inhumane.
But Border also aims to articulate the experience of difference. Tina and Vore embody several kinds of difference that society still seizes upon as grounds for rejection: perceived ugliness, non-normative genitalia, ambiguous gender signification. Melander, compellingly emoting through heavy make-up, makes poignant Tina’s background as a non-normative quasi-human. But if it’s taken as an allegory for differences among humans, the film becomes a bit discomfiting. It posits a supernatural, extra-human explanation for many types of bodily and identity differences that actually exist among people currently struggling to be seen as human. Border challenges viewers to accept radical difference, but the way it projects versions of human difference onto nonhuman creatures who share our world somewhat muddles its conceit. Nevertheless, the film’s surreal—but somehow simultaneously grounded—melding of myth and reality makes it a unique, otherworldly experience.