Richard Dyer once wrote that “performers get to be stars when what they act out matters to enough people.” This is an ambitious burden, noble maybe, though perhaps the stars are just hot. We are always dubious of why people have things that we do not. This is why the allegorical Star is Born franchise has long since moved to the more acceptably meritocratic myth of rock and roll, still the terrain of denim jeans and sung by the soul and so on. It is the real stars who are forced down to earth in order to lend themselves to their greatest performance of all: convincing us that we, too, with our normal lives, are actually beautiful.
In the beginning of Ali Abbasi’s sophomore feature, Border, the self-affirming beauty of le cinéma is hard to find. The myth-like forest labyrinth where the film takes place—somewhere Scandinavian—is the gorgeous stuff of fairy tale marginalia, but the people are grimy and filmed in unrewarding light. The title nods at the profession of Tina (Eva Melander), a Border Patrol agent at a nearby harbor, which is as gritty as a harbor is, a collection of small details which communicate the quiet anguish of uncleanliness. Our gaze is, however, largely directed at Melander, who spends the film underneath a small mountain of prosthetic makeup. All masks are metaphors and, in Abbasi’s film, Melander’s represents the daily logic of alienation, a physical manifestation of never fitting in. Also, people call her ugly a lot to her face, which has got to suck.
And yet she has made due in the reality of this world—a life in the countryside where impressions of the better-looking are not so overbearing: companionship with a dog-obsessed weirdo (Jörgen Thorsson) who provides physical presence, if not real romantic partnership, in the place of barren loneliness we expect our Beasts to suffer in before our attentions find them. She has superpowers too—a spidey sense for uncovering dishonesty and shame—but we don’t witness the magnanimous nature of its discovery, just the banality of its use as she uncovers tired travelers smuggling bottles of liquor through the duty-free.
Who or what is Tina? The answer is a bit of a spoiler, as Abbasi takes some time to get there, revealing his interest in Tina’s everyday ache and disaffection, which opens the films up to parable. The story and script come from John Ajvide Lindqvist, a big deal in Sweden who is most well know over here for penning the novel and then the movie Let the Right One In. He is a solid, workman-like manufacturer of the weird, and such weirdness abounds in Border, largely taking the form of literalized figments of recognizable folklore. It’s something that I suspect someone like Lindqvist contains a whole library of, to use for just this purpose of weirding out novels and popular films.
None of that is really the point, though, for Abbasi. An Iranian-Danish filmmaker with an interest in telling stories that play with the relationship between social insiders and outsiders and the constant, knee-jerk establishment of borders—that human illness that never quite succeeds at camouflaging loneliness—Abbasi is interested in allegories that artfully refuse to resolve themselves so completely. His 2016 debut, Shelley, was outwardly more straightforward—both in message and in niche horror appeal (it was given a stateside release via IFC Midnight). In it, a well-to-do but infertile couple decide to offer their poor Romanian housekeeper the chance to rent out her womb for surrogacy, an arrangement that gave Abbasi a chance to play up class discomforts and contemporary xenophobic resentment while remaining firmly in the language of Rosemary’s Baby. “[Shelley] was about how the EU structure works, how the rich Europe takes advantage of the poor Europe,” Abbasi has himself said.
I actually highly recommend coming into Border expecting something like this, an indie full of smart allegories on immigration politics, with a little bit of lo-fi fashionable horror sprinkled in. You will be relieved to discover that it is not that, and there’s a good oh, he’s doing that factor which will please the Hollywood set, who like to see actors really workin’ at it. (For this reason, Sweden has submitted the work for Oscar consideration.) But Border is also a truly beautiful film and tells the kind of visual story that can only be told on camera, a dance of small inflections, human drama. This is why most people ever watch foreign films, for the kind of aching beauty that keeps your eyes above the lower third. Abbasi will be welcomed to Hollywood and will make something real freaky then.
Abbasi’s ability to veer between fantasy, horror, and the sublime space that could pass for either also brings to mind brings to mind the recent work of Guillermo Del Toro, who shares Abbasi’s ear for expressing the politics of the expatriate, moral guidance communicated from slight remove. In fact, Border can be described as a sort of photo negative of Del Toro’s most recent The Shape of Water, wherein an everyday outsider finds romantic and sexual companionship with the discovery of a new species, only this time it’s her own. Del Toro finds moral purpose in the sentimental sadness of tragedy and Abbasi finds the same in that of rejection.
Because Tina meets Vore (Eero Milonoff, who is under a similar mountain of prosthetic makeup) who consumes maggots and an escalating number of conventionally sinister things. Unlike Tina, Vore is not trying to belong. His position toward society is that of the militant outsider, who takes his revenge on society by enacting the misery of old myths. (see: “literalized figments of recognizable folklore,” Del Toro, etc.) It connects these myths to something that feels very contemporary, the terrorist, the extremist yelling in the corner, whose anguish will always be more poison than yours. Something appears off about Vore from the start, which Tina overlooks in her desire to find companionship inside a world that has been so lonely to her. Performing beneath the makeup is a challenge and Melander and Milonoff make a good and freaky dance of it. Watch this and contemplate, meditate on human ugliness and the relationship between significations of evil and the actual dark thing itself. As Tina is named Tina and Vore is named Vore, it is easy to follow along and provides ample time for thought. Liberal democracy will, of course, win again.