Wednesday, November 28, 2018

'Border' Review: A Near Perfect Dark Fairy Tale

In a year of a totally stacked Oscar race, the territory of Best Foreign Language Film is no exception. With films like Burning and Shoplifters gaining a lot of momentum with the critical community, it's important to take a step back and take a look at some of the other submissions. Sweden's submission this year is a film called Border, based on a short story by author John Ajvide Lindqvist (author of Let the Right One In).

All it takes is one look at the trailer, or any promotional material for Border to tell that there's something a little unusual at work in this film. It follows Tina, a woman with a chromosome deformity that also has an unusual gift; she can smell emotions. She puts this gift to work in a very practical way by working as an officer at a border crossing. She can smell fear and guilt as criminals make their way past her, trying to smuggle in contraband from outside the country. Tina has a crappy boyfriend, a father in the throes of dementia, and an unusual bond with nature.

Everything for Tina begins to change when a man named Vore crosses the border, a man that has the same facial deformities as Tina, and even the same scars.

The story is quite literally a dark fairy tale romance. And, despite the two leads being buried under layers of (intentionally) ugly makeup, it is quite romantic, and even sexy at points. This is a credit to the astounding work our two lead actors, Eva Melander and Eero Milonoff, are doing. In their hands, what could easily feel hammy or uncanny feels totally natural, as if they weren't wearing layers of prosthetics at all.

For the majority of the film's run time, it is sweet and wholesome and impossible to look away from. It builds upon, and expands its own mythology without resorting to weighty exposition dumps. Border warmed my heart in ways I didn't expect. It is a film about outsiders finding their place, and learning to love oneself.

That is, until the third act. The ending moments of the film seek to totally undo everything it built up in the film up to that point. Clear out of left field the film takes a totally miserable turn, bordering on late-career Shyamalan, and devolves into something lesser. Prepare yourself for a full transformation into a Grinch, because Border will fill your heart to the brim, and then squeeze it and wring it out empty.

On one hand, I feel that this is totally intentional. The filmmaker takes a firm stance in pessimism. But, the narrative device that gets us there is lazy, and totally unchoreographed. Which isn't to say that a film needs to totally spell out its eventual destination, but it should at least make some sort of sense looking back at everything that came before it.

Luckily, the majority of the film is still quite lovely. And, on a technical level it never falters, even if the narrative sort of falls apart towards the end.

I give Border a 3.5 out of 5