At first, “Border” is the story of an ostracized woman named Tina (Eva Melander), who works at a remote Swedish port where she sniffs out contraband, and long ago accepted that she was ostracized because of her unusual appearance. But this is not your average ugly duckling story. As the movie charts a path to her burgeoning self-confidence, it arrives at a sex scene so unexpected and ludicrous it instantly transforms the movie into a dark fairy tale.
Iranian-born director Ali Abbasi’s sophomore effort (following 2016’s “Shelley”), co-written by the author of the Swedish vampire novel “Let the Right One In,” builds out such an unusual premise that it risks devolving into quirky inanity, but Abbasi grounds the narrative in an emotional foundation even as it flies off the rails.
While Tina possesses unique abilities, she has sagged into a mundane routine. A short, bulky woman with a gnarly overbite and exaggerated snout, she spends her days watching new arrivals at the port, sniffing the air like an animal as she puts her inexplicable sense of smell to use by picking up on contraband and busting smugglers on a regular basis. Tina’s peers don’t comprehend her special abilities, but she’s so effective at using them that nobody questions them.
Sadly, years of rude stares and teasing have turned Tina into a dour introvert who has accepted the absence of happiness in her life. She spends her evenings at home in a remote forest with her apathetic partner Roland (Jorgen Thorsson), who’s more content with watching television and petting his dogs than paying her heed; meanwhile, her senile father barely recognizes her when she pays him a visit. Tina finds some modicum of comfort from her relationship to animals, going so far as to pet a passing moose in her yard after dark, but the monotony of her day-to-day routine shows no signs of letting up. As she sneers, growls, and sniffs the air, her peculiar habits seem like a cruel joke with no apparent punchline.
Then she meets Vore (Eero Milonoff), who arrives at the port and instantly catches her gaze. They pair have markedly similar physical characteristics: the same elongated nose, jagged teeth, and long brow (the movie’s makeup art plays a big role in the plot). Vore displays a strange eagerness to subject to himself to a search from border security, which leads to the first of several revelations about his gender-bending identity and how it relates to Tina’s own feelings of displacement.
She begins to obsess over Vore, who displays all the confidence she lacks, and he begins to seduce her in a series of enigmatic encounters. Abbasi plays up the disgust factor, as Vore has a penchant for munching on maggots and relishes the presence of dirt underneath his fingernails, while Tina is at once repulsed and aroused by every detail of his existence. However, just as their courtship starts to look like an outrageous variation on Tod Browning’s “Freaks,” the story takes another turn that reveals far more about their past and takes the movie into a more fantastical realm. These sexually-fluid beings are more than the sum of their appearances, and when Tina learns as much, she’s forced to grapple with a whole new set of questions.
The two actors play their strange characters with such believable empathy that “Border” manages to work far better than it should. While it takes a few too many dramatic detours, including a subplot involving a local pedophilia ring that distracts from the appeal of this central coupling, the movie retains an elevated sense of awe around the nature of Tina and Vore’s relationship. Beyond their strange mutant powers — sniffing emotions and attracting lightning among them — their bond speaks the capacity to dismantle social constructs associated with physical appearances by rewiring traditional standards. The result is a kind of gothic romance that wouldn’t look out of place in Guillermo del Toro’s oeuvre. “I’m deformed,” Tina says, astonished by Vore’s advances, and he fires back, “You’re perfect.”
The screenplay draws from John Ajvide Lindqvist’s short story, but it’s also credited to Isabella Eklof, whose recent directorial debut “Holiday” contains a rape scene so shocking and explicit it dares audiences to question the filmmaker’s intentions. While “Border” doesn’t harbor quite the same level of sophistication, it’s another shrewd attempt to challenge audiences about the assumptions they bring to the table.
By the time Vore proclaims that “the entire human race is a disease,” it feels like he’s indicting all of us. “Border” doesn’t stop there. While Tina gains confidence in herself, she’s unsure where her allegiances lie, and the movie concludes with the implication that not every ugly duckling has to abandon the other birds to feel like they belong.
“Border” premiered in the Un Certain Regard sidebar at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.