The pleasures of “Border” border on the indescribable, but I’ll try to describe this Halloween-season shocker all the same. “Border” is a small-scale Swedish feature that sneaks up on you but isn’t scary so much as amusing, then intriguing, then, by degrees, unsettling, troubling, frightening, honest-to-badness horrifying and enthralling.
The heroine—that’s not quite the right name for her, but it will have to do—works as a customs agent at a Swedish border station. Her name is Tina, and she spends her days sniffing out contraband. That’s not a figure of speech, and Tina isn’t your stereotypical Swedish beauty. She looks like a troll, to be charitable about her plug-ugly features, and she has a preternatural sense of smell that enables her to nab suspects unerringly. Not only does she have a nose for controlled substances, she can spot criminal behavior by sussing out emotions like shame, guilt or rage. (The actress behind the face, Eva Melander, is phenomenal in the role.)
I smelled a fascinating movie taking shape at the moment when Tina stops a traveler named Vore to search his belongings—she smelled him coming—and finds a soul mate, or so he would seem as they join forces to explore where they belong in the world of standard- issue men and women. The more we—and they—learn who they really are, the more the term “outsiders” seems inadequate. They’re outside established borders of outsiderhood, and that’s no surprise, given the backgrounds of the filmmakers.
The Swedish-Iranian director, Ali Abassi, has more than a casual interest in how Sweden regards its Others; it’s no stretch to see his film as an oblique comment on Europe’s immigration crisis. The screenplay is based on a short story by John Lindqvist, who collaborated on the adaptation. He wrote “Let the Right One In,” a superlatively creepy vampire film in which the genders are reversed—the teenage bloodsucker takes the form of Eli, a dark-eyed girl—and then effaced; Eli is less of a she or he than a no-identifiers- applicable.
The same goes for Tina and Vore; when they lose themselves in wild sex it should be grist for the Guinness Book of World Records, but under what category, in what world? That’s the thing about this elegantly crafted movie—it defies definition while inviting it. Is it a love story? Absolutely. A detective yarn? For sure: Tina gets promoted to detective and cracks a big case. A comedy? In fits and spurts. It’s also a meditation, with philosophical overtones, on what it means to be less than, more than or other than human. “Border” may not be everyone’s idea of a fun night out, but it takes you to places you won’t forget, and that’s nothing to sniff at.
I’m Joe Morgenstern. I’ll be back on KCRW next week with more reviews.