That’s odd, I thought, during the early going of Ali Abbasi’s new film, “Border.” I wonder why it’s in Swedish. I’d gone to Manhattan’s IFC Center this past weekend intending to see a different film, “Roma,” arriving with what I’d thought would be plenty of time to get a good seat, nearly an hour prior to showtime. But a sign on the ticket window stated that all screenings of “Roma” were already sold out for the day. Disappointed but still keen on seeing a movie that afternoon, I looked to see what else was playing; “Border” was starting at about the same time. The top of the film’s poster said something like “From the acclaimed screenwriter of ‘Let the Right One In . . . ’ ” Since I prefer to know as little as possible about movies before I see them, this small bit of information was good enough for me. I bought my ticket and walked in.
I had enjoyed that quiet little film from some years back, the one starring Laura Linney and a then-unknown Mark Ruffalo, and I felt good about entrusting part of my afternoon to that same screenwriter. I assumed that I was in for what would probably be a thoughtful, muted story about ordinary people facing the small but consequential obstacles of everyday life. I imagined that the film might skillfully edge toward the precipice of sentimentality without tumbling over, and that I would likely shed a tear or two as the end credits rolled. Afterward, I’d take a leisurely stroll around the West Village, maybe get a cup of coffee, and continue on with my peaceful, solitary day, the film I’d just seen a small pebble dropped into the otherwise placid lake of my consciousness.
Boy, was I wrong. The film that I was mistakenly thinking about is Kenneth Lonergan’s “You Can Count on Me,” from 2000. I’d completely forgotten that Lonergan had written it, or else I might have realized the error of my ways when I saw an unfamiliar name on the poster. I didn’t realize my mistake until after I’d left the theatre, my legs a little wobbly under me, my mind flashing back to a performance that I had attended a few years ago, at St. Ann’s Warehouse. It was the National Theatre of Scotland’s stage adaptation of the Swedish film “Let the Right One In”—the only time in my life that I have jumped out of my seat during a performance. (I’ve never seen the original film.) Oh. Right. “Let the Right One In.” Not “You Can Count on Me.” Same number of words, same general sentiment. And all similarities end exactly there.
I only mention my blank-slate encounter with “Border” because I think it might well be the ideal way to see this film—without any foreknowledge of its plot whatsoever. I urge you to stop reading now and go see the movie at your earliest opportunity, avoiding any synopses, reviews, or trailers before you do.
“Border” may be the strangest, most beguiling film that I have ever seen. It is a fever dream of madness, a remarkable feat of pure imagination and outré filmmaking. Afterward, as I stood in the lobby among my fellow-moviegoers, all of us in a kind of stunned disbelief as we tried to process what we’d just seen, I overheard a visibly upset middle-aged woman say, to what appeared to be her teen-age children, “Well, now we can say we’ve seen the worst movie ever made.” The kids were quick to agree with her; too quick, it seemed, and I wondered whether their sarcasm was of the knee-jerk variety, dispensed in an attempt to mask an unmanageable discomfort—a defensive posture requiring the affirmation of others to make it stick. It was this same sensibility, I imagined, that led some in the audience to react with titters during the film’s many moments of extreme tension and visionary strangeness. “Border” is a furnace of unfiltered, wild expression, an attack on normalcy and complacency, a jubilee of mystery and weirdness. If you are entirely satisfied with life, or at least resigned to the inevitability of it running its course in ways that seem tolerably predictable, it may not be the film for you.
No doubt, those lobby dwellers who were so quick to dismiss the film thought that it was disgusting. It is. It is, at times, wincingly disgusting, and transgressive, and gross—its makers flooring their vehicle well beyond accepted boundaries of good taste. But it also features moments of such pure feeling—pure ecstasy, pure rage, pure desire, pure ferocity—that I have to rank it among the most thrilling cinematic experiences that I have ever had. I’m also not sure that I’ve ever witnessed a more committed, courageous film performance than the one given here by the actor Eva Melander. It is a film for anyone who has ever felt like an outsider and for anyone who has ever felt bad about himself for being different in some indefinable, fundamental way.
There is a particular kind of bravura in modern-day European filmmaking that seeks to depict the limits of grotesque human emotion, where storytelling virtuosity is paired with an almost sadistic contempt for its audience. “Border,” as shocking and provocative as it is, does not belong to the same universe as some of the films of Lars von Trier or Michael Haneke, for example, or what might be called the Cinema of Cruelty, after Artaud—a realm in which the underlying conviction seems to be that we must be made to squirm, forced to look directly at life’s most extreme awfulness as penance for the lazy cultural habits that have left us desensitized to the horrors of everyday contemporary life. Instead, Abbasi’s “Border,” written with John Ajvide Lindqvist and Isabella Eklöf (and adapted from Lindqvist’s short story of the same name), reaches back to the dark, expressionist tradition of his fellow-Swedes August Strindberg and Ingmar Bergman, artists who also sought to push the limits of their chosen forms, who also investigated the disquieting and the paranormal, but whose work always embraced humanity’s inner freak. To me, “Border” is cause for celebration. I can’t wait to see it again.