Border Review — It’s a cleverer title than you know

Eva Melander and Eero Milonoff in Border

So, Eva Melander’s Tina is a woman with this facial deformity who works customs in small Swedish port town, she displays the uncanny ability to literally sniff out those who come off the ferry smuggling contraband. When someone born with the same condition as her disembarks and volunteers to be searched, all of a sudden she doesn’t know for the first time what to make of someone. It’s an initial touch of charming magical realism. We see this woman hurry between her ailing father; a boyfriend that takes advantage of her; a world that discards her for her appearance — secure in the knowledge that, at least in her unappreciated vocation, she’s the fucking best.

Only when confronted with someone with the ability sees her as more than her one unique talent does it begin to fail her. A charming beginning to a tale maybe, something befitting of Tom Hanks in the nineties if the woman had a severe case of stylishness and got all weak kneed at the sight of our hero. This resolutely isn’t that, Göran Lundström and Pamela Goldammer’s makeup work deliberately sets these folk on the outskirts. Make it obvious why a self styled drifter and a woman who hides herself in a woodland shack would choose to live this way.

It challenges Ali Abbasi to use his camera to bring us into their world, lead actors Eva Melander and Eero Milonoff to reach out to us from under the heavy prosthetics. It takes its time with it, drawing us into the stifling routines they move through and the freedom of sensation. Our opening shots are of Tina regarding a grasshopper on her finger, we’ll return to hands constantly — revelling in the nature of touch, the pleasure bodies can bring when unscrutinised. Liberated from the judgemental gaze of society, we start to see this woman blossom into her own.

As she does, so too does the film — in about a dozen different directions at once. That nugget of magical realism that we open on grows steadily until we creep upon the bounds of straight fantasy. The social realism of her day-to-day leads to the discovery of a child pornography ring and a right turn into noir as she’s drafted into the investigation. You’d expect these two divergent aspects to be warring with each other, but it’s surprising how comfortably they manage to sit side by side.

One’s for sure better than the other though. The crime stuff is a good hook but it’s a lacks the rich psychological complexity of everything that’s going on outside of it. Because it’s very much not a story about a man arriving and changing a woman; it’s the woman given the power to realise that she is not the person she thought she was. Not defined by the shape that the world told her she could be. And when this dude comes and starts with his mansplaining, maybe she doesn’t have to be what he wants either.

It’s a narrative of the oppressed, but not one that seeks to uplift them by raising them to the standards of conformity. Like John Ajvide Lindqvist’s previous screenplay (also based upon one of his short stories) Let the Right On In, it imagines a world where difference is free to exist, outside the constrictive boundaries of society or normality. It’s got more on it’s mind sure, but when early on an official states, ‘You should have done the inspection. She, he, uh, has a vagina…’ Well it’s hard not to paint it as an explicitly trans narrative.

Before this screened came a trailer for yet another film where some cis lad plays a trans woman and I honestly have no doubts that this is better representation. It explicitly about how people inhabit non-normative bodies, how we move through the world, how we engage with our physicality and sexuality. I wanna say what the last image of the film is, because it nails something harrowing and emotionally truthful, but jeez that would require blundering all over the spoilers that I have been so carefully tiptoeing around.

Cos the film does something new every fifteen minutes. It’s an exhilarating ride, and yet presented with real stark economy. There’s not an ounce of fat on this joint, it knows perfectly when to tease and when to deliver. Long quiet conversations get to play out in the woods, a psychological wilderness where personal discoveries can be revealed. At other times we’re held five minutes behind the action, figuring how the meticulously laid out puzzle pieces already got put together, and why the picture ended up looking nothing like you expected.

It’s a masterfully empathetic film, Eva Melander beautifully runs her character through the gamut. Her eyes a ever-flowing wellspring of emotion behind the mask that she wears so inscrutably. Yet it knows when to brook it’s compassion, the arsehole boyfriend is allowed to be just that. When it’s delving down into the lacquered filth of child abuse, an obvious indictment of the invisible suffering that straight society inflicts upon its underclasses, it has a restraint that isn’t always employed.

It’s great, and I’m gonna save more things I wanna talk about for a spoiler article where I can talk about them properly, but know that it’s great. When I first heard about this I worried how it was going to fair without Lindqvist’s former collaborator Tomas Alfredson at the helm. I honestly wasn’t expecting The Snowman to be the bad one of the pair. Ooh, this so good.

Border is currently screening in UK cinemas.

Image courtesy of Mubi

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