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Swedish fantasy film Border (Ali Abbasi, 2018) is a story of outcasts and identity. In 2018, film critic Simon Abrams bemoaned its lack of relatability, commenting on how Abbasi exploits characters’ monstrous qualities, that:
“In a world of human monsters, Tina and Vore’s eccentricities are supposed to make them human; in reality, they just look weird and creepy.“
His review proves that the critique of relatability in popular movies, books, and media did not die with internet discourse in 2014. However, his criticism stands in stark opposition to what Abbasi and his actors sought to convey. In an AFI interview, Abbasi states how he wanted to capture the story of someone ugly, a blatant contrast to how television and movies are inundated with conventionally attractive people in menial jobs. It is a story of an individual stuck between two competing interests.
We meet Tina (Eva Melander) before we experience the ever-expansiveness of her identity. She works for the Swedish Customs Service, turning her keen senses to recently disembarked passengers passing through customs, in search of potential contraband. The film hints at her gift for smelling the feelings of people, such as the emotions of the people entering customs. Mainly feelings of guilt, but given the constraints of her job, it is difficult to determine whether Tina parses out much else.
The film, while cognizant of the literal borders that Tina works with, is primarily focused on the figurative borders she builds against other people. She tolerates the existence of her roommate, pseudo-boyfriend Roland (Jörgen Thorsson), for companionship. Whether he is her “real” boyfriend or simply a roommate is unclear, given how separate she seems from him. The distance is magnified by Roland’s obsession with his dogs. The rottweilers he dotes on do not like Tina. Tina’s closest relationship, then, remains with her father (Sten Ljunggren), but many unanswered questions begin to chip away at that connection. We discover Tina is at her most expansive with nature, through scenes of her walking shoeless, interacting with deer, bugs, and the dirt. It is not until we meet the oddly enigmatic Vore (Eero Milonoff) that both the audience and Tina become much more curious.
Tina smells Vore before she sees him. She flags him to be stripped-searched and finds a scar on his back. She shares a similar scar herself, prompting her to ask her father about it on her next visit. He attributes the scar to a bout of childhood recklessness; a seemingly innocuous lie that leaves a lot more questions than answers. For answers, Tina seeks out Vore once more. In Vore, Tina meets someone who shares similar physical features but moves through the world with more confidence. She rushes into a romance with Vore who is more calculated in his approach, but the film, like Tina, is equally taken with him.
Jess Zimmerman wants us to embrace our ugliness. She relates this statement to a mythic lady whose ugliness precedes her myth, Medusa. She regards ugliness with deep reverence, determining it is:
“…something greater and stronger and stranger than mere non-beauty. It is not an absence but a new force, unpredictable and unrestrained. Beauty has rules and symmetry ugliness does not. Helen of Troy’s face might have launched a thousand ships, but one look from Medusa could have sent them all to the bottom, weighted down with a crew of stories.”
It is a revolutionary reading of ugliness that redefines the power of evading the normative standards of beauty. Umberto Eco echoes this sentiment to an extent, noting that where beauty is detachment and an absence of passion, ugliness, by contrast, is passion. Eco sources the Greek origin of applying a moral ugliness to a physical form and describes how this rendering of ugliness has been used to justify the abuse of marginalized groups. In Border, the murmuring of “ugly bitch” at Tina is only part and parcel of her existence. If she is not demeaned for her looks, she is ignored, as demonstrated by Roland. Her ugliness underscores a larger history of subjugation that is revealed later in the film.
Tina’s conception of the lack of her own beauty leads her to believe she has a chromosomal deficiency that makes her defective as a woman. Vore dismisses this belief, telling her it is not a deformity before the two engage in messy, awkward sex, a penile organ emerging from Tina, allowing her to mount Vore. Afterward, Tina learns from Vore that she is another species entirely—a troll, and that only a few troll communities remain. It is both a discovery and a loss, knowing that those made in her image are not anomalies, but are also few and far between, continuing to diminish in smaller and smaller populations. In this moment of intimacy, Tina garners an entirely new subject history, paralleling other histories of subjugation.
There is no storied origin for the term troll. John Lindow in Trolls: An Unnatural History, writes, Guesses include derivation from such verbs as ‘tread’, ‘to rush away angrily’, ‘roll’ (as with ball lightning) and ‘enchant’, as well as from a noun meaning ‘stout person’. While we can perhaps conjure up images of trolls to which any of the above might be applied, I incline towards an origin related to magic, especially shifting and changing things…
Lindow argues that the term “troll” has shape and gender-shifting qualities like trolls themselves. The film’s subversion of gender only extends as far as gendered sex organs than an actual exploration of gender shifting and shapeshifting. Vore, who is emblematic of living comfortably outside of respectable boundaries, serves to entice Tina and affront all the humans in her life. Vore exists within a Grecian prescription of ugliness: His outward appearance matches his complicated moral ugliness. Tina recognizes a power emerging from this new entirety of being, leading to her altering her life. She gets rid of Roland and his rottweilers, but her eyes open to more than simply her own identity.
As part of her work, Tina aids law enforcement in tracking a paedophile ring operating within Europe, beginning with her sniffing the guilt of a man attempting to pass through customs with a memory card filled with child pornography, and culminating in the kidnapping of Tina’s neighbour’s baby. It is revealed that Vore is the main operator of the paedophile ring, committing revenge on the human population for the genocide of the troll population, and it is Tina who confronts him, stating she does not share Vore’s anger and hatred for the human population. Her decidedly human upbringing sets her apart from Vore, although questions about her origins still remain.
She eventually gets the full story from her father with him revealing he saved her when he worked at a psychiatric hospital where trolls were experimented on and tortured. Her actual parents gave her the name Reva before dying, and she visits their graves after this admission. The pain is potent. It is reminiscent of the moment when she finds out she is a troll; a beginning and ending are offered in one fell swoop. I do not totally dispute Abrams’ criticism of the film’s exploitation of the monstrous qualities of the characters, but it is a film where the characters are struggling to contend with the societal horror of knowing the decimation of the species they belong to continues to inform and make them. Whether it is Vore’s base understanding of moral retribution or Tina’s ignorance that is borne from the very same harm, the “monstrous qualities” are the product of a societal ugliness conveyed through anecdotes and implications. What is left in the wake of the genocide is Tina’s attempt to remap and make a life from a newly founded truth, and what we are left, as an audience, is a series of what is remains left unsaid. The film relies on the audience’s gross imagination to evoke true horror. Abbasi and everyone who worked on this film created a host of monsters to embattle, but the audience is equally complicit in its making.
Border is available to watch in the US on Hulu.