A customs officer who can smell fear develops an unusual attraction to a strange traveler while aiding a police investigation which will call into question her entire existence.A customs officer who can smell fear develops an unusual attraction to a strange traveler while aiding a police investigation which will call into question her entire existence.A customs officer who can smell fear develops an unusual attraction to a strange traveler while aiding a police investigation which will call into question her entire existence.
Also a socio-political allegory and a mythological fable, Gräns is indefinable, switching fluidly from one genre to the next and one idea to the next, taking in such issues as the Other, the tribe, social ostracisation, social assimilation, and our tendency to rush to superficial judgements of that which we don't understand or which is different. There are, of course, a few problems; a subplot that feels disconnected from the main narrative, a ridiculous coincidence (the likes of which only ever happens in films), a twist you can see a mile away, and a pronounced moral ambiguity which is extremely difficult to parse. Nevertheless, this is unique filmmaking, which raises all manner of questions about how we act towards others, a crucial theme in a political arena which has seen unprecedented growth in casual racism and xenophobic hatred.
The film tells the story of Tina (a superb Eva Melander, acting under heavy prosthetics), a customs officer with the ability to smell guilt, which makes her exceptionally good at her job. Suffering from deformities that give her a somewhat Neanderthal-like appearance, she lives an isolated life with her boyfriend Roland (Jörgen Thorsson), who is more interested in his pet Rottweilers that he is her. Unable to have sex because it hurts her too much, she and Roland sleep in separate beds. As the film begins, Tina intercepts a man carrying child pornography, and is subsequently invited to join the police task force investigating the child porn ring. Meanwhile, she is shocked to encounter Vore (an extraordinarily physical performance by Eero Milonoff), who has the same deformities as herself. Although she smells something on him, she isn't sure what it is, and she lets him through customs. A few days later, he passes through again, this time volunteering to be searched. Her colleague conducts the body search, but quickly discovers that Vore has a vagina. When he tells Tina that Vore also has a large scar on his back, at the base of his spine, she is shocked, as she too has such a scar. Intrigued by Vore, Tina meets up with him and offers to let him stay in her guest house, much to Roland's chagrin, where she and Vore begin to grow closer.
Given the fantastical elements of the plot, one of the most interesting things about Gräns is how grounded in realism the aesthetic is. One of the strongest elements of the film is how emotionally engaging and relatable Tina's arc is; the events are fantastical in places, but the emotions are very much grounded in the every day - loneliness, shyness, fear, love, disgust etc. The magic realist aesthetic allows the more unusual elements to exist without seeming (too) ridiculous, whilst also establishing that the world of the film is essentially the real world, just with some garnish added.
Abbasi does set up a contrast, however, between the scenes in the forest which surrounds Tina's home and the rest of the locations. The forest is presented as a somewhat magical place from the start - it is where Tina is most comfortable (an early scene in which she chills with a gigantic moose is both illustrative of her psychology and extremely beautiful), where she goes when life starts to overwhelm her, often taking her shoes off so as to feel better connected to the natural world. Later, the forest is where Tina and Vore spend a lot of their time, where they give in to their attraction to one another (in what is easily the most bizarre sex scene outside a Lizzy Borden film you're likely to see all year), and where they explore their history. Whilst everything else is filmed with a cold palette dominated by grey and washed out light blues and greens, with relatively unattractive locations, the forest is presented very differently - the colours are richer and deeper; the design elements more imaginative; the camera work more fluid; even the sound design is different, heightening the crunch of feet on the forest floor, the scurrying of insects, the wind blowing through the trees, the crash of water at a small waterfall, suggesting the whole place is vibrant and alive, in stark contrast to the cold concrete and steel world seen elsewhere.
Thematically, Gräns functions as both a straightforward narrative about loneliness and morality and as a political allegory about the Other, belonging, tribalism, hatred based on difference. The opening scene establishes Tina as the emotional lynchpin of the story, showing both her kindness and her attraction to the animal world, as she gently handles a bug, before carefully placing it back into the grass. This theme continues throughout the film - there's the aforementioned scene with the moose, a scene with a fox at Tina's window in the middle of the night, a scene in which she is rushing her neighbour to hospital to give birth and stops to let a family of deer cross the road. These scenes are shot by cinematographer Nadim Carlsen with a sense of wonder, and an almost ethereal quality. It's as far removed from the mundanity of the customs desk or the brutality of the child porn ring as you can imagine. This is also reflected in the sex scene, which Abbasi and Carlsen shoot in such a way as to imply that Tina and Vore attain an emotional and spiritual transcendence far removed from the commonplaceness of an orgasm.
For all her closeness to animals, however, Tina is just as distant from humans, and she's desperately lonely, in a society that shuns based on appearance. Indeed, one of the most salient themes in the film is the question of how we treat the Other, people who don't fit into our definition of normal, or whom we don't understand. Vore himself is introduced as something of a rebel against social norms; whereas Tina is ashamed of and tries to hide her differences from everyone else, he is proud of and leans into his - seen most clearly at a buffet, where he takes all the smoked salmon, and then hungrily eats it with little concern for social etiquette (or buffet etiquette).
The film also touches on issues such as what gives us our humanity, suggesting that in a world populated by humans lacking in humanity, maybe Tina and Vore are the most human characters, or certainly the most humane. Tied to this is the notion of finding one's tribe, and what kind of sacrifices and subversions of one's moral code, if any, are acceptable in that search. However, the film does end in an extremely morally ambiguous manner. I'm not sure if it had a happy ending or not, and although I got most of the symbolism and the allegories and the socio-political critiques, I've rarely come out of a movie with such a pronounced case of "what was the director trying to say with that?"
Elsewhere, the whole child porn subplot is troubling from a narrative point of view. For starters, it's not very convincing in its concrete details (for example, Tina is allowed sit in on a suspect interrogation). Additionally, for the most part, the subplot serves to do little but detract from the main plot. I get that it's there to show us Tina's abilities and her moral code, but too much time is given to it without it being made to seem in any way urgent or important. And when it is finally integrated into the main narrative, it happens with a plot twist so telegraphed, if you don't see it coming, you've never seen a movie before. Also, when we learn how the two plots connect, and when we backtrack to the start of the film, we find that the entire house of cards relied on a monumental coincidence which cheapens both plot strands.
These missteps aside, Gräns posits a message about how being different isn't that bad when you still have your morals and self-respect. It also suggests to those of us that consider ourselves normal, that we shouldn't be so quick to judge the Other, whether that Other is physically different, of a different ethnicity, a different religion etc. Exposing the layers upon which our society is built, the film is unafraid to suggest that hypocrisy and exclusion are major facets of Western civilisation, an important topic at a time when there are increasing calls for closed borders, increasingly irrational fear of the Other, and increasingly jingoist and xenophobic hatred of anything not perfectly in line with established societal norms. The plot does go off the rails in the third act, and the morality of the dénouement is a little questionable, but this is still a fine piece of work with a lot on its mind.
- Mar 20, 2019