Border Meaning

How our stories take shape is worth considering, especially the weird ones. Let the Right One In novelist John Ajvide Lindqvist helped bring his story to the screen in Tomas Alfredson’s film of the same name — a tender vampire tale about belonging — a process he repeats for Ali Abbasi’s Border based on his own short story. As one of three screenwriters on the film (along with Abbasi and Isabella Eklöf), Lindqvist is tasked with yet another transmutation of meaning through a genre lens. Border, a film ideally watched with little prior knowledge, is best described as the story of Swedish border agent Tina (Eva Melander), an ostensibly “ugly,” Neanderthal woman with a literal sixth sense for crime, discovering the truth of her origins. Though in crafting a horror-adjacent tale in which European immigration is a constant backdrop without ever being a central focus — what is or isn’t metaphorical becomes fittingly borderless — the very concept of “meaning” becomes a tightrope act.

Border, as relevant a film about “the now” as any, doubles as not only xenophobia metaphor, but an at-times crafty, at-times questionable transgender text as well. It’s a lot of things rolled into one — Supernatural detective thriller! Fairy tale that touches on Western beauty standards! — and as with all art that hopes to spin multiple plates, its execution is imperfect. And yet, it remains viscerally compelling from start to finish, drawing the eye to its own imperfections and complications at every turn. /Film editor Jacob Hall calls it “a terrible idea executed with grace,” and rightly so.

(This post contains some spoilers for Border, so if you want to return after the film opens in theaters on October 26, this is a good point to bookmark this post.)

Is it problematic, or poignant? These seemingly opposing forces are woven into its very fabric. Its character-centric text tells of the reserved, troll-like Tina, whose ability to smell fear, shame and guilt — emotions supposedly indicative of criminality — makes her the perfect watchdog for the EU’s ports. She’s able to sniff out a hidden memory card containing child pornography on a well-to-do businessman, but she’s also part of the wide-spread problem of border authorities stopping migrants based on “suspicion.” When the equally troll-ish though much more self-assured Vore (Eero Milonoff) passes through her post, Tina smells… something.

Vore has a pompous, eerie demeanor; his protruding brow and jagged teeth make him akin to the heavily made-up, bloodthirsty “races” of Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings (your Orcs and the likes), though his pot-belly and muted, dadcore attire (untuck your t-shirt, dude) make him discernibly human. He carries larvae in a timed hatcher that, to the untrained eye, resembles a caricature of a dynamite bomb, a resemblance he knows full well will get him stopped at the border. If he truly feels any guilt or shame, he hides it well; he must be used to it, since he draws the stares of children and adults alike.

Tina insists that Vore be strip-searched — her supernatural sense of smell has never failed her — though the reason Vore might be fearful or shameful doesn’t occur to her. Vore doesn’t have the body of a cisgender man; he has what Tina’s male coworker describes as a vagina, though he also bears a scar on his tailbone similar to Tina’s. She apologizes profusely, familiar with the kind of embarrassment she must have caused Vore, but he simply shrugs it off. “Ugly” and creepy as he may be, gorging on all the salmon at minimalist buffets, there’s something alluring about the way he carries himself. Were he better looking by Western and/or human standards, his leery stares would read like smolders.

Tina, a woman who looks over her shoulder at every turn, fearful of being insulted or attacked for her appearance, is drawn to Vore’s confident sense of equilibrium. Raised by “normal” parents, as appearances go, Tina has never seen anyone else with her physical features, let alone the same scars caused by both surgery and lightning; the elements seem to chase them both. The two are clearly connected somehow, both by genetics and something more, and the mundanity of Tina’s domestic life compels her to search for answers. Her live-in boyfriend, when he isn’t off at out-of-town dog shows, crosses line after line in getting her to make love to him — Tina, who isn’t able to have children or become aroused (by “regular” humans, at least), is understandably unwilling — whilst Vore seems to know what makes her tick, both in the way she sees the world and her yet-to-be-discovered physicality.

The two engage in a whirlwind affair, letting loose like animals in heat as they make love in forests and ponds, surrounded by a nature that’s far more accepting of them than any human society. Even their awkward fumbles and wide-open-mouthed kisses glow with the beauty of mutual acceptance as the rain shields them from human hatred. Tina learns more about who she is, where she comes from and what her “normal” parents kept from her; Vore is her guide and window into a world of self-acceptance, and she noticeably places him on a pedestal. That is, until Vore’s own crimes and intentions become clear; a man beaten down by the world, his survival in it isn’t just dependent on illicit activity, but the kind with vast human collateral he doesn’t seem to care about. To Vore, those who have wronged him — even innocent individuals who belong to oppressive groups — must suffer as he has. And Vore has certainly suffered, as has Tina. Would a violent rebellion necessarily be wrong?

Regardless of what side the film or the viewer comes down on, Abbasi presents a complex relationship that opens up new opportunities for Tina. She’s able to understand her physical, social, sexual and cultural outsidership for the first time — the “metaphor” here is all-in-one, for better or worse; what Tina even is has a dozen real-world parallels — but she’s also forced to deal with the pull and push of betrayal by loved ones for the first time, as she discovers both her parents’ dark past as it pertains to her childhood, and Vore’s equally sordid present.

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