Swedish troll fantasy Border is a prosthetic masterpiece

Naturalistic makeup gives weight and potency to Ali Abbasi’s touching fantasy about a troll who polices the Swedish border.

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When the Oscar nominations were unveiled last month, there was an unfamiliar title in among the big-hitters. It was announced that a little film called Border would be slugging it out in the makeup and hairstyling category against Mary Queen of Scots and Vice. What accomplishments could a small-scale Swedish picture possibly have within it to merit comparison with the work done to transform Margot Robbie into Elizabeth I and Christian Bale into Dick Cheney?

Those who have seen Border won’t be asking that question. The film centres on Tina, a customs security guard with Sweden’s border agency, who has an unorthodox method for spotting smugglers and miscreants: she sniffs them out. Her twitching nose can smell guilt, fear and shame, no matter how blasé those who breeze past her post might appear.

Tina, you see, is a troll—her face, swollen and almost canine, distinguishes her from those around her, and attracts insults from those she has cause to apprehend. She was raised by human parents, mixes effortlessly with her human colleagues, wears a uniform just like them, but remains a troll nonetheless.

Tina doesn’t realise quite how special she is, or what her heritage entails, until she meets someone else just like her: the imposing Vore, who happens to cross her path at the border one day. The more time she spends with him, the more she realises who she really is—and what she could be.

Though the film’s qualities do not begin and end with its prosthetics (including forehead, cheeks, nose, chin, ears and eyelids, all of which took up to four hours each day to apply to the two lead actors), the naturalistic makeup gives the film weight and potency.  

“Things tend to be a little exaggerated in Hollywood movies, and I wanted to have it look a little more casual,” the make-up and prosthetic designer Göran Lundström, who has been nominated for the Oscar alongside the film’s key makeup artist and hairstylist Pamela Goldammer, told Variety.

Border is adapted from a short story by John Ajvide Lindqvist, writer of Let the Right One In, and contains much of that earlier picture’s scorched lyricism. A British friend living in Stockholm called the movie “beautiful but also wretched at the same time,” while a Swedish friend commended it for its natural imagery: “What struck me most was the romanticism of the forest. I believe that it’s something that lives inside all Scandinavians but in the film it became emphatic.”

When the picture’s Iranian-Swedish director Ali Abbasi was in London last week with actors Eva Melander (who plays Tina) and Eero Milanoff (Vore), they talked to the New Statesman about Border.

What were your first impressions of the script?

Eva: I only read the short story and a few scenes of the script. I had this tremendous gut feeling about it. I knew if it had the right director it could be something very special, as well as being demanding for the actors on so many levels. It felt fresh and modern. It was as though I’d been longing for this story without realising it.

Eero: I was in the dressing room at the theatre where I was working at the time when I got sent the script. I asked my friend to have a look at it. I said, “I don’t have time to read it. What does it say?” He told me, “It’s something about trolls.” I thought he was joking.

What anxieties did you have about wearing prosthetics?

Eva: Basically this is my toolbox [she points to her face]. And when I do film work, it’s even more focused on the face; the small expressions, the tiny muscle movements. I knew that would be covered by prosthetics, so together we all had to invent ways of acting with a mask. It was about discovering what would show up.

Also I’m playing a character who has totally rubbed herself out, suppressed her feelings and desires. Everything is buried in her. She can’t afford big expressions anyway. So I had to find a way of doing very little but still connecting with the audience, mainly with my eyes.

Eero: The connection between Eva and I was the main thing. As long as that’s there, you can feel what we’re trying to do. If it isn’t, there is no meaning in the scene.

Are trolls still a big part of Scandinavian culture and mythology?

Eero: Not so much for me as they used to be. I don’t read my kids troll stories.

Eva: There were lots of troll stories when I was a child in the 1970s. They seemed to pop up everywhere. “Brush your teeth or the Tooth Troll will come.” That sort of thing.

So you have flawless dental hygiene even now?

Eva: Exactly, because I’m still scared of the Tooth Troll.

The trolls we come across in literature are often at borders and bridges and they have to be paid a toll. Is one of the jokes of the film that Tina works at border security?

Ali: Yes, and there are other puns in there. Not from me but from the story. I noticed them and thought, “Well, let’s let them just lie there. We don’t have to force them but neither do they have to be removed.” In Sweden the border security is called gränskontroll. It’s really the only reason we made the movie, to get all this wordplay in.

Border will have different resonances for immigrants, refugees, people who identify as queer or trans. But isn’t the film a more explicit analogy for the way the Sámi people were oppressed and persecuted by Sweden?

Ali: It’s true there are analogies with what the Swedish state did to the Sámi. Even as recently as the 1970s there was a “racial purity” programme where Sámi women were sterilised. They were sent to mental institutions; there was a move to “civilise” them.

Eero: They did experiments on them because they considered them not really human beings.

Eva: But I think the film applies to so many minorities—sexual minorities, certainly—and so it is not specifically about one thing.

Ali: Also, it isn’t a far-fetched idea at all. Just look at how people all over Europe treat Romani people. There is real hatred and mistrust; many people find it irritating that the Romani will not fit in with our way of living, our structure. Certainly you don’t have to go back 40 years to find this kind of anger. It’s happening now.

Eero: We are all outsiders, aren’t we? In the very core of ourselves. It’s society that tries to make us the same person.

Eva: That’s one of the reasons why the film has connected so well with audiences. It speaks to what’s going on now.

Ali: Gender fluidity is a good example. When I started working on this in 2012, that term was not really spoken of, at least not as widely as it is now. Then right as we were coming up to release, it was like we were riding this huge wave.

Did the Oscar nomination come as a surprise?

Ali: I had this strange feeling that the movie was too far-out for the Oscars. I always thought our real chance was with make-up because that is objectively, undeniably a great achievement, whatever you think of the film.

If there is any justice Göran [Lundström] should win. Not because of the level of proficiency or skill but because very few movies—The Elephant Man springs to mind—have been so dependent on make-up to create the character. It’s so much a part of the story. It isn’t “let’s see how much Christian Bale can look like someone else.” Which is great and probably very hard to do as well. But Border would be inconceivable if the make-up didn’t work. 

The Academy Awards ceremony is on Sunday. ‘Border’ is released in the UK on 8th March.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.