Editor’s Note: Vanyaland’s Nick Johnston is north of the border all week long for the Toronto International Film Festival; click here for our continued coverage from the fest and also check out our official preview.
You can put Ali Abbasi’s name right next to Tomas Alfredson’s and Matt Reeves’ on the list of directors who have managed to pull cinematic gold out of the mine that is Swedish author John Ajvide Lindqvist’s bibliography. The Iranian-Swedish filmmaker’s latest work, the Cannes hit Border, manages to evoke a tone similar to the ones his forbearers crafted with their adaptations of Let the Right One In, while dealing in the traits and folklore of a cryptid that’s often only on the minds of the Scandinavians: The Troll. No, not like the ones you’d find on the shelves at a toy store in the ’80s, nor like the kind that might attack you in the Mines of Moria or in a Hogwarts bathroom. These trolls, like our protagonist Tina (Eva Melander), often don’t even know that they’re different in any other way outside of a “chromosome disorder” that they don’t even really understand.
Life, ironically, has put Tina in a position not too uncommon for her kind: She’s a crossing guard, though her bridge is actually a port of entry into Sweden and her billy goats gruff a stream of travelers who, occasionally, want to bring drugs and worse into the country. She’s the best officer at her station, thanks to an extraordinary ability of hers: She can literally smell emotion, from the fear of a kid trying to smuggle liquor in or to the shame of a pedophile having a flash drive full of horrors hidden away in his phone case. But all that comes at a price: Her appearance has left her bullied all throughout her life, and the only meaningful relationships she has are with her senile father and her boyfriend Roland, who trains dogs that instinctively hate her. Her life changes on one fateful afternoon, when a man much like her crosses the border. His name is Vore (Eero Milonoff), and it seems he knows a bit more about her origins than she does. Together, the two will explore what it means to be a troll in love, in all of the nitty-gritty ways, even if it threatens them both.
When I say explore, I mean, they explore. Make no mistake: This is the type of film for the people who wanted to see the Fish-Man’s cock in Guillermo Del Toro’s The Shape of Water, and were horribly disappointed when they didn’t. The specifics of troll sex are shown in all of their graphic detail, from exactly what goes where and how, to the nature of their monthly cycles (which, well, are closer to a chicken’s than our own). It’s impressive how Abbasi manages all of this seemingly lurid information in a way that never feels shock-jocky or exploitative, though it comes dangerously close to trigger-warning territory in a sequence that is very nearly plucked from A Serbian Film, as Tina winds up assisting the local police in busting a pedophile ring (by using her sense of smell) and discovers some pretty ugly shit on a video camera in a couple’s apartment. That, too, winds up serving a purpose, though it isn’t readily apparent at first glance, and Abbasi is able to tie things up smartly. He, like his protagonist, has an instinctual feel for the land, and that informs Nadim Carlsen’s beautiful photography throughout.
But really, this is a film mainly about loneliness, and how utterly magnetic a person can be when they claim to have an answer to all of your questions about yourself. Tina’s issues — her lack of self-esteem, her uncomfortableness in her skin, her alienation — feel massively relatable even if you’re not a troll, and it’s a credit to Melander that she never loses sight of the character underneath all of the prosthetics. Border isn’t exactly the easiest of watches, but it’s well worth your time and effort if you can handle it. It’s Swedish horror done as close to perfection as anybody’s come in the last 10 years, and as nearly solid a love story as well.
Follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus. Featured image courtesy of TIFF.