Working as a customs officer for the Swedish Border Agency, Tina (Eva Melander) uses her unique ability to sniff out wrongdoers. Her unusually acute sense of smell allows her to detect any guilt or shame on the passengers as they pass her checkpoint. But it isn’t her strange ability that is the only thing that makes her stand out as she isn’t what you would describe as pleasant to the eye; and being caught doing something wrong can definitely bring out the worst in people.
In the early moments of Border (Gräns), Tina uses her ability to discover a memory card full of child pornography. In a clean-cut businessman’s pocket. Under the case of his mobile phone. When asked by her boss about how she managed to find it, Tina informs them of her incredible sense of smell and this leads to Tina assisting in the investigation into the supply of an illegal material. However, when a man walks through customs with similar facial appearance to Tina, on searching his bag nothing illicit is found. With her sense of smell failing her for the first time, Tina is intrigued by this man and goes off in search of him. And so begins a voyage of self-discovery.
Border is certainly a strange film. Based on a short story by John Ajvide Lindqvist (Let The Right One In) and containing fantasy elements interwoven with the more mundane, Border makes you think one thing before shifting and turning everything on its head. As with most fairy tales, this story doesn’t shy away from some dark and magical themes but it does explore them in a really interesting way and gives it that touch of realism.
Needless to say the locations are glorious: Tina lives in a remote wooden cottage and frequently walks through the trees in barefoot silence and swims in the nearby lake. But in keeping with the fantasy/real balance, Tina’s workplace in the narrow confines of a customs hallway is the exact opposite of the wide open world that she is drawn to. And Eva Melander’s performance as Tina is wonderful and awkward at the same time, being both socially reclusive yet full of the wonders of nature; it is a great performance of two parts. Enduring hours of makeup to look the part, Melander also gained a significant amount of weight to play the role of Tina but it all pays off.
Border taps into the strong feelings of belonging and finding, or even knowing, yourself and emphasises it by using Tina’s differences to everyone else to make her feel like an outsider to begin with. Revelations upset the status quo of Tina’s existence and it takes her the rest of the film to work out who she actually is and more importantly how she wants to use this new information to live her life.
Border won the Un Certain Regard award at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, so it has certainly been well received so far. Director Ali Abbasi has taken some Swedish folklore, spied through the lens of Ajvide Lindqvist’s short story, and turned it into something gritty and realistic but has still managed to maintain a streak of the fantasy running through it.