Every year, a couple of films at the Cannes Film Festival push the boundaries in a way that finds viewers laughing nervously and staring at the screen slack-jawed, either struggling to comprehend what they’re seeing or simply embracing the weirdness of it.
Master provocateurs like Lars von Trier and Gaspar Noe have yet to show their hands at this year’s Cannes, but Iranian director Ali Abbasi dropped an impressive pile of WTF on Thursday with the premiere of his film “Border” (“Grans”), in which the first of the weird mega-shocker moments came with some hairy, sweaty and distinctly unusual troll sex.
Let’s just say that gender is apparently a fluid concept in the troll world and leave it at that.
It drew uneasy laughter in the Salle Debussy on Thursday, and then a robust round of applause when the film ended. “Border” is a quintessential midnight movie for the artiest of art-houses, though its prospects for any kind of wide distribution in the U.S. are likely slim.
(Surprisingly, perhaps, it’s playing not in Cannes’ Midnight Screenings section, but in the tonier Un Certain Regard section.)
If you want, this is a horror film in which strange beast people eat maggots, based on a novella by Swedish writer John Ajvide Lindquist, who also wrote the spooky classic “Let the Right One In.” But it’s also an allegory of how we treat outsiders, from migrants to those who don’t love the same way we do. Either way, it’s creepy and disturbing and freaky, with enough room to find whatever subtext you’re looking for.
The central character is Tina (Eva Melander), a rough-looking customs agent in Sweden who has an uncanny knack of sniffing out travelers who are trying to bring in contraband. But she’s not the human version of a drug-sniffing dog, because Tina actually smells feelings.
“I can just sense these things: shame, guilt rage,” Tina tells an investigator who’s enlisted her to stop a child-pornography ring.
“Is it really possible to smell what people are feeling?” the investigator asks.
“Yes,” says Tina. And we know she’s telling the truth, because we’ve seen it happen.
Of course, it takes us a while for us (and Tina) to know why it happens, and what that means for Tina. It’s all tied in to the scars on her body and the hair in unexpected places and the hint of a tail, and the appearance of a man named Vore with some unusual appetites and a familiar look to him.
Oh, and what the guy keeps in his refrigerator might give David Lynch the willies, or at least a shock of recognition.
Abbasi, whose only previous film was the 2016 horror movie “Shelley,” takes us on a wild ride, with black comedy bringing laughs that catch in the throat when Tina’s professional and personal lives unexpectedly collide. “Border” is dark and unsettling and proudly deranged; it’s the kind of shocker that may not survive too well outside the festival environment, but seems to be a necessary part of every Cannes.