Beauty Within the Beast – Border

As the year winds down, the Oscar campaigns are in full swing. Among the most competitive categories is Foreign Language, which has more than 80 films vying for one of the five coveted nomination slots. Sweden’s submission, Border (Gräns), may earn one of those spots, with its mix of character study and magical realism, which earned it the Un Certain Regard award at Cannes this year. But even if it doesn’t, it might see some action come Oscar Night, as the film features some of the best makeup work I’ve seen in quite some time.

Eva Melander stars as Tina, a customs agent at a local ferry port. She’s trusted by her colleagues and berated by tourists, because by just about any standard of physical attraction, she is rather ugly. Her brow is furrowed, her teeth gnarled, and her gaze piercing and unmovable. She honestly looks like a missing link between Neanderthal Man and Cro-Magnon Man.

However, she has an uncanny ability that makes her perfectly suited for her work. She can smell guilt and shame on people, and uses it to pick out smugglers. Usually it’s just teenagers who bought alcohol underage or someone bringing in some pot, but one day she’s able to sniff out a hard drive full of child pornography. Upon learning of her skill, the police hire her to find the people responsible for this child porn ring.

In the course of her work, she also comes across a man named Vore (Eero Milonoff), who shares many of her physical characteristics. He also eats maggots and is very rude to other people, many of whom are put off by his appearance long before they deal with his brash behavior. Still, he is a curiosity for Tina for obvious reasons, and the two begin a friendship and eventual romance, which takes several unexpected turns, forcing Tina to reconcile her life with her personal identity.

It’s odd that the chosen English word for the film is Border, because thanks to good old Google Translate, I found that Gräns can also mean “limit,” “frontier,” and “boundary” among others. It’s that last one that I find most apropos here, as this is very much a film that blurs lines and crosses them, be it in terms of law and order, good and evil, reality and fantasy, or any number of other seemingly related or opposed terms.

Still, I must admit that at times the story got just a bit too odd for me. I saw the film in a very small, intimate arthouse theatre, and upon walking out, half of the rest of the audience (of about 12) were openly wondering what we had just witnessed. There’s no accounting for taste or artistic temperament, but sometimes you just have to admit, it’s too weird. There are some good literary aspects, and the acting is fine, as well as the overall morality of the film, but it really is just odd, to the point that finding the film enjoyable was a bridge too far.

That said, this isn’t uncharted territory for Sweden. Two years ago its entry for Foreign Language, A Man Called Ove, got nominated in the intended category, as well as for Makeup & Hairstyling. A couple years earlier, The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed out of the Window and Disappeared was also nominated in the Makeup category without even being submitted by Sweden for Foreign Language (which in itself was odd, as it is the third highest-grossing Swedish movie of all time). Border could very well be the third Swedish entry this decade to earn a nomination for Makeup, and it’s certainly deserved.

I’ve described the facial appearance of the two leads, but really, it’s best just to show you. Here are Eva Melander and Eero Milonoff during the film’s press tour.

And here’s the pair in the film itself.

Honestly, it’s astounding. And their faces are just the beginning. The pair of them gained weight for the film and wore full-body prosthetics that took over four hours to apply each day. And trust me, NOTHING is left to the imagination, from very hairy breasts to surgical scars. At one point Tina and Vore consummate their affections in a scene so graphic and makeup-reliant that I remember thinking to myself, “I’ve seen weirder stuff on Pornhub, but not by much.”

The makeup job on the two leads alone elevates this film a full letter grade. I still didn’t like it, but the masterful work made me not hate it, either. Makeup & Hairstyling is the one Oscar category that still has a three-film field (they went to four once), and it’s amazing to me how much the Swedish film industry has thrived on its makeup abilities, to the point that it may wind up with more nominations in the one true short field than in the actual intended category.

Grade: C+

Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What’s the best makeup job you’ve seen this year? If this film is left out of Foreign Language, will it be a lonely Swedish? Let me know!

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