Thursday 10 May 2018

Cannes 2018 - Gräns by Ali Abbasi

A Scandinavian genre film, with a screenplay written by John Ajvide Lindqvist (author of Let The Right One In) is a salivating prospect, and indeed Gräns shares some similarities with the Swedish horror classic. In it, Tina (Eva Melander), a border inspector with an uncannily developed sense of smell, lives a lonely life due to her unusual appearance, when a stranger enters her life, one she feels a connection with, without quite understanding why at first.

Gräns is immediately captivating thanks to its inspired visuals and pervading sense of oddness. While the interiors are purposefully pictured as drab and depressing, being houses or workplaces, far from the usual stereotypes of Swedish Ikea living, in contrast nature is filmed beautifully, not in an idealised, elegiac way, but in a very earthy and tactile manner, with crawling insects and soil in close-up, a place not so much accepting as indifferent, and where Tina finds some solace.

It is challenging to discuss the film's themes without going too far into narrative details, but let's just say that just like Let Right One in, Gräns's main theme is otherness, being different for being a stranger, a foreigner (director Ali Abbasi was born in Iran but lives in Denmark), for one's appearance or even queerness. Tina has always felt an outsider due to her unusual appearance and suffered with isolation, having arranged for a handsome hustler stay at her house and very obviously take advantage of the situation, just to numb her loneliness.

So when she finally meets somebody "like her", who accepts her for who and what she is, it feels like a rebirth. Except that while the audience might anticipate a rather simplistic "love yourself just the way you are" message at that moment, and for both our leads to join The Greatest Showman sequel, the director confounds our expectations by adding some complexity to his message. Echoing any movements within minorities that have sought not just to ask permission from the majority to live their lives the way they want it but have actually chosen to live in the borders (Border is the film's International title), in ways that are unpalatable to others, the story finds Tina having to decide how to live her otherness indeed.

It is a real shame that Ali Abbasi then elects to add a crass and repugnant subplot to signify the evil of humanity, one that nearly sinks the film. Just as he risks losing the audience however, he conjures up some mesmerising scenes of savage, organic oddness and gender bending transgressions, that elicited some gasps and shock in the Cannes audience. The way the director also weaves in some Scandinavian folklore in a very contemporary story work beautifully. The film truly belongs to Eva Melander however, who carries the film emotionally throughout, despite being hidden under some heavy make-up. She never chases sympathy, and delivers a committed and very physical performance.

Gräns is a beautifully messed up and tragic modern fairy tale that will delight fans of cult cinema.

Review by Laurent de Alberti

Official Selection, Un Certain Regard

Star rating: 

Gräns. Sweden/Denmark 2018. Directed by Ali Abbasi. Starring Eva Melander, Eero Milonoff...

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