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It’s a hard knock life for trolls—not the kind living under the bridge, nor the “Can’t Stop the Feeling” dancing cartoons, nor the kind that lurks in the dark depths of Twitter. The troll at the center of “Gräns” is Tina (Eva Melander), a customs officer with a unique, Neanderthal-esque physiognomy that allows her to intuitively “smell” other people’s moral feelings. After Tina unveils a passenger carrying a disk bearing child pornography, she helps the police uncover a ring of pedophiles and human traffickers. Tina’s loneliness is mitigated when she meets Vore (Eoro Milonoff), a similar-looking man who comes to stay in the guest house across from the home she shares with her deadbeat, dog-showing boyfriend, Roland (Jörgen Thorsson). Vore’s appearance, both his physical mien and his presence, finally gratifies Tina’s desperate desire to belong, sympathizing with many of her feelings of inadequacy and uncertainty about her own identity. Yet there is more to Vore than meets the eye, and after Tina learns more about him, she finds herself caught in the midst of a hairy moral dilemma with an equally hairy foot in either world—neither entirely human, nor entirely troll.
Director Ali Abbassi’s Cannes debut, “Gräns,” might not be suited for a mainstream market, but its unconventional plot and impressive acting help mediate its arthouse bizarreness to a wider audience. The end result is, like the film’s protagonist, a strange hybrid of several genres that is one part Swedish noir, one part romance, one part moralistic fable for a film that plays jump rope with the border of what viewers can bear to see on screen.
The vestiges of the film’s Nordic fairytale reference material linger in Abbassi’s cinematic rendering of the natural world, the forested copses and open bodies of water where Vore introduces Tina to the troll way of life, taking her for swims in the lake during rain and literal romps in the mud. After just one day in Vore’s world, Tina is repelled by the prospect of returning to the human world. “I don’t want to live like that anymore,” she says. It’s a no-brainer: Abbassi’s visual, formal choices starkly separate the bloodless, clinical world of Tina’s job as a customs officer from the lush, vegetal landscape of her affair with Vore. And along with this world, Tina is enamored by the man who seems to control it. For insecure, shy Tina, it’s easy to mistake Vore’s selfishness for self-confidence, his physical similarity for sympathy. And the ethical conflict at the center of her struggle is a gripping one. For all the human race’s wrongdoing, Tina finds something redemptive about their world, and the people she has learned to love who inhabit it.
It seems like a simple plot, but Abbassi teases out his film’s capacity for the weird—sometimes to the detriment of his film’s purpose. Tina and Vore’s odd, tongue-heavy kissing and the amount of strange, animalistic grunting are enough to test the limits of comfort for any viewer. A sex scene with a computer-generated erect troll penis probably created more comic relief than Abbassi intended. It was a brave directorial decision on Abbassi’s part to make his characters “other” in a way that was not aesthetically beautiful in a conventional way, but the risk does not pay off when it detracts from its own seriousness, Tina and Vore becoming more caricature than character.
It’s only until the ambiguous ending manages to preserve the film’s artistic integrity that “Gräns” seems to pay off for the rest of its roughly two hour run time. Though a bit narratively unsatisfying, the final scene saves “Gräns” from being an all-out morality fable, adding depth and nuance to Tina’s decision and character. What’s left is an eccentric story about inclusion and belonging, marginalization and otherness, as resonant as it is strange.
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