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The Ecstasy of Touch: Close-Up on Ali Abbasi’s “Border”

Ali Abbasi’s remarkable film about two strange outsiders finding one another is an unclassifiable fable of otherness.
Ali Abbasi's Border (2018) is having its exclusive online premiere on MUBI in the United Kingdom. It is showing from July 12 – August 10, 2019.
Border
Transcendence is a corporeal mechanism, as it dwells on the slim border dividing human from inhuman. Precisely this convergence of carnality and affect is what Ali Abbasi’s second feature film, Border (2018), touches upon. Tina (Eva Melander) is apathetic to the pleasures of society and relationships, yet she possesses an uncanny gift: to smell what people are feeling. Her compartmentalized being is stirred when she meets Vore (Eero Milonoff), their  vertiginous infatuation reminiscing the Platonic myth of the androgyne: two souls in a single body. The truth, however, is far more unchaste. 
In Tina’s world, emotions acquire smell, aggression and passion become equally associated with sex, exacerbated by Nature’s sheltering landscapes. Her character is more intimate with the forest, than with people, and, for once, animalistic behavior is not condemned. All of this positions Border as a film which weaves its magic of horror and suspense, to dislodge any comfort of meaning within its spectators. Refusing any conceptual reduction, the images flow from enchanting appeal to repulsive monstrosity: this wide emotional spectrum affirms Border as an affecting film, one that you cannot stay indifferent to. Lured in the vexing tranquility of Swedish forests, it is the spectator’s fingers that plunge deep into the dirt, it is her own body that craves the purification of mountain ponds, and most of all, she feels like screaming out of pleasure and pain.
Ali Abbasi’s films are meditation on the nature of touch: his Bressonian attention to hands permeates his earlier works. In his first film, M for Markus (2011), a short about the strange infatuation of a police officer with a young murderer, Abbasi navigates through the currents of ambivalent desire, mixing taboo and admiration. While eroticized violence is a traditional theme since Hitchcock, through Brian de Palma, David Lynch, and more, Abbasi’s depiction of touch provides an insight in the multiplicity of human desire, bordering with the inhuman. Ecstatic pleasure, savage frenzy, and bloodthirst—all of them rest on the axis where humanity and animality meet.  
The film’s opening is marked by a convergence of worlds: the gentleness with which Tina plucks a grasshopper from the ground reveals her reverence to the flora and fauna, as if they are not too far apart from the human world. Throughout the film, we see Tina avoiding touch at any cost, keeping a polite distance from her colleagues at Border Control Services, her neighbors, and mostly, from her estranged, eccentric partner Roland (Jörgen Thorsson). Conventional intimacy is, in this way, rendered undesirable, and life—sterile. Yet the comfort of her voluntary isolation is made apparent through a juxtaposition: the affecting closeness which encompasses the protagonist as she steps barefoot in the forest. The secluded woodland sheds off its previous austerity and transforms into a fairytale backdrop, freeing nature from its earthliness—behold, magic realism! Long shots engulf Tina in the wilderness, as she becomes one with the ground,  stepping barefoot with the crunching sound of breaking branches. More than an escapism from society, Nature provides an outlet to reconnect with the primal, as foxes and moose advance freely to be petted by her. Tina’s touch is, it seems, saved for animals. 
Border is a film about otherness, but it takes on a bolder meaning of the word—transcending the ethics of interpersonal relationships (Tina’s acquaintances are flat, conversation is scarce), it concerns itself with the nonhuman: animals and disfigured faces. During shooting, Eva Melander was subjected to hours of make-up work a day to achieve Tina’s deformed facial expression, casting the protagonist out of the beauty canon. Employing somewhat of an aesthetics of ugliness, Border expands on the question of subjectivity and how does one constitute oneself as a person regarding the other. The synthesis of humanity and animalism is vested in the character of Vore (Eero Milonoff), a nomad with a sinister smile and a collection of insects. Tina’s reactions to him are predominantly aggressive, in between a self-defense and a mating call: she grunts and bears her teeth at the sight of him. Yet, she is easily convinced they are one and the same—by the deformed face, by their genetic disorders. A sense of belonging unleashes desire, as Tina and Vore run senselessly through the woods, an initiation of a life of self-acceptance. The fairytale forest becomes the canvas for pleasures of the flesh, as the couple’s excessive intimacy dominates the screen. For spectators, this moment is of crucial importance. If the film was a ticking bomb, this is the first explosion. Unlike gory representations, or sexuality on display, the sex scene that follows is the epicenter of Border’s push and pull dynamics.  
As spectators, we are subjected to what is shown on the screen, perturbed even. Although passive, viewers reach out to an immaterial object, a remnant of a reality, that has metamorphosed into fiction. The rawness of bodily sensations punctures the spectator’s reception and lures her perception in the debris of intimacy. Attraction through repulsion is the governing mechanism of Border, as the film’s non-beautified characters have non-beautified sex. Transcending activity and passivity, female and male gender, this sequence ruptures any strive towards a unified subject, the dream of psychoanalysts, in favor of a fragmented, yet authentic self. Otherness is never radical, as Border shows us—it is already latent within ourselves. The coupling of Tina and Vore is more than a platonic androgyne: it is acknowledging one’s origin, self-acceptance, and transcending limits of the flesh. As they gouge their fingers in each other, they are digging in the ground, nature and body become the same, and the spectator sight is mesmerized by the oneiric quality of touch. An important political, social, and anthropological lesson, the affective qualities of Ali Abbasi’s film excavate a sympathy for the other, disguised as sympathy for the devil.

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