Savina Petkova on Ali Abbasi’s ‘Border’ (2018)
WHAT IF SOMEONE TOLD YOU THEY could smell your shame? Your fear, your harmful intentions? Would you arrest and reflect on your miserable disposition and succumb to remorse? Probably not, at least in Ali Abbasi’s brazen second feature film, Border / Gräns, which won this year’s Un Certain Regard prize at the Cannes Film Festival with its bold treatment of the anxiety induced by the human condition. Border is a sensual provocation which makes use of its finest visual forms and fills them up with disturbing content, thus composing an uncanny double-character which transcends the male-female and human-animal divide.
When we meet Tina (Eva Melander), she guards the border on Swedish coast. Revered at her workplace for her impeccable intuition for smugglers and offenders, she can literally smell it off a person. Her uncanny synaesthetic disposition shuns her outside of the ordinary social order, yet it proves valuable for the local police department in their investigation of child pornography. As Tina joins in the hunt for suspects, a somewhat-familiar stranger walks in her life. Vore (Eero Milonoff) is the only one in the film who resembles Tina: both have facial features considered repulsive by societal standards. Behold: the aesthetics of ugliness. Attraction and aversion are mechanisms that twist and turn a polarising spectatorial reaction towards the protagonist. One cannot stay indifferent to any aspect of this film.
Socially secluded in her mountain cabin, Tina leads a fairly solitary life. While keeping interactions with neighbours, her father, or her lover Roland (Jörgen Thorsson) in a friendly manner, she is distinctively an outcast. Being absent-minded in conversations that are already scarce of words, Tina seems closer to the muddy ground she walks barefoot on. The camera follows her walks in the woods to establish an intimate proximity with her breath and fingertips. As she caresses a moose, or strokes a fox on the other side of a window surface, this woman belongs to nature more than she belongs to humans. Alas, the distance she posits between herself and the socium is mirrored in the distance Tina keeps from her own identity. Herein lies the perennial question: “Who am I?”, she asks Vore, who shares her proximity to nature. The question, however, must remain rhetorical. Eva Menander delivers a phenomenal performance as visually deformed Tina. During shooting, she spent hours in makeup and costume every day. As the actress’ physical beauty is hushed and her voice reduced to grunts and gnarls, she inhibits the skin of a quasi-human being. While receiving the Cannes award on behalf of Abbasi, Eva confessed that this role was so utterly demanding that she “almost didn’t make it”.
As a setting for this subversive androgynous story, the mythopoetic potential of the Swedish wilderness pays tribute to a nature untouched, a nature praised, a Mother Nature. Nadim Carlsen’s cinematography reveals the magic in realism, as the camera is by turn rapacious with close ups of Tina’s gritting or growling teeth, her dirty fingernails plucking in the soil, or disturbingly stoic to images of sexual arousal and genitalia. At times, the images are haptic: the skin we feel under our eye-touch is rough and hard, and yet the double-character of Tina-Vore are intimate and shamelessly pleasurable. A disturbing sight to watch, at which the audience may laugh away the physical repulsiveness portrayed with cinematographic elegance, such as pouring soft light on hairy bodies. Cinema of affect, which challenges a notion of coincidence between form and content, a disruptive juxtaposition that agitates and lures you in – Border is seductively vexing.
Love-drive (eros) and death-drive (thanatos) collide in the erotic cannibalism that is Tina and Vore’s relationship. A film that is winged by spirituality is grounded in the dirt — reminiscing human’s medial position between the divine and the animalistic. With the help of Norse mythology, Border fleshes out humanity’s oldest fear of defining oneself between God and beast. Indeed, Vore’s reassuring speech of humanity’s decrepitness reminds us of the permeating human despair in relation to environmental crisis and wars, yet it all amounts to self-doubt. Defining a human through exclusion of the beastly side has never worked out for neither humans nor animals: both end up being victims. What we can learn from Border, if we brush off the initial shock and incitement of such visuals, is that magic realism tells a story about feeling human. Transcending gender and social definitions, Abbasi’s bold storytelling derives from John Ajvide Lindqvist (author of Let The Right One In), a known grim fairy-tale lover, and with Border we witness an exceptional poeticism — forms of the deformed.This film is unprecedented for its shift from storytelling to feeling-telling, even more: it’s a multi-sensory meditation of (e)motion.
Screened as part of BFI London Film Festival 2018