A story from the writer of Let the Right One In adapted by Ali Abbasi asks us to define what makes us human in a dark, supernatural romance that doubles as a social commentary.
Tina is a customs officer with a nose for suspicious people. And it’s a trait that we can take literally: she can sense people’s feelings – shame, guilt, rage all among them – and uses her power to excel at her job. With just one sniff, she can catch a teenager smuggling alcohol or point the police’s attention to a network of child abusers who carry memory cards with the evidence on them. But when she fails to find anything problematic about one of her suspects, she starts her own private investigation. What she finds out redefines her identity and shifts her sense of belonging, but the mysteries multiply faster than she manages to solve them.
Adapting a short story by the author of Let the Right One In John Ajvide Lindqvist, Ali Abbasi gets his hands dirty with a melange of dark romance, eerie fantasy and tender drama. Utilising the magic of Nordic folktales, he allows nature to become the leading force of his film, giving the cinematographer Nadim Carlsen a chance to exploit the picturesque sceneries of the Swedish coast, albeit with a muted colour palette. Throughout, the director pushes the boundaries as he probes us with ideas about the society. Trying to define what makes one human, he deceives the audience, juggles appearances and erases presumptions. The final result reminisces last year’s Oscar winner The Shape of Water and evokes comparisons to Agnieszka Holland’s Spoor in how it handles the social commentary.
Tina’s character journey is deeply rooted in her detailed, humane portrayal, executed with sensitivity and skill by Eva Melander (who also pulls off a spectacular transformation for the role). Besides an exquisite sense of smell, she gets on well with animals and looks out for them: a friendly fox stops by her window at night, deers and elks aren’t scared to approach her, and she carefully picks up the tiniest of bugs before they get lost in the depth of greenery of the forest she lives in. Isolated from the society because of a chromosome flaw, she strived to adjust to the demands of the world regardless. She has a job and owns a house. Her father is still an important part of her life. Her neighbours and colleagues treat her with respect. But there’s a profound sense of longing that fills her life: she allows a lodger to live in her house only because she’s lonely, and she never found a kindred spirit among other people.
Vore’s arrival challenges her sense of identity. There’s an almost animalistic attraction between the two, and their similarities make her question every trait she saw as her flaw. “As a child, I thought I was special,” she tells him, bitterly admitting that growing up showed her how ordinary she was. Having found a soulmate after all the lonely years, she shares the insecurities about her appearance and confesses that she’s infertile. “You’re different from others because you’re better than them,” he responds. Initially, it’s a confidence boost, but Tina is yet to discover the dark meaning behind Vore’s words.
Despite all the directions in the story encouraging us not to judge the book by its cover and reassuring us that the mysterious stranger is harmless, the sense of uneasiness never leaves us for long. Eero Milonoff’s performance contributes to the unsettling air of mystery around Vore. Frequent close-ups often focus on his face, pointing to his wandering eyes. It’s tough to tell what he’s looking at, while tension and distraction on his seemingly calm face also make us question ourselves. We smell a suspicion from a mile away – but if Tina followed her preconceptions to a false start, how can the audience question his words? After all, this is a story about the deceiving appearances, and it’s easy to fall prey to questions and assumptions as the story unfolds.
Border opens as a part of the London Film Festival. Its UK release date is yet to be confirmed.