Sweden has submitted the movie Border for consideration in the Best Foreign Language Film category at next year’s Academy Awards. Based on just the most surface-level description — a disaffected border guard finds new meaning in her life after meeting a mysterious stranger — it could easily be filed under Toned Down Oscar Drama, but Border offers something so much more. Adapted from part of a short story collection called Let The Old Dreams Die by John Ajvide Lindqvist, Border shares the same muted magical realism as another one of the author’s works, Let the Right One In. And where that story reimagined the well-worn vampire’s tale as something tender and melancholy and rooted in the banality of everyday life, Border gives that same treatment to trolls.
Yes, the unhappy officer with an extraordinary sense of smell and a paralyzing fear of lightning is a troll living among humans, but when we meet Tina (Eva Melander), she has no idea why she is the way she is, or why she looks the way she does. Until she encounters Vore (Eero Milonoff), a quiet but confident figure who gives her the first link she’s ever had to her past and her culture. As Vore and Tina become closer, she experiences a powerful physical attraction unlike anything she’s ever known, and in one extraordinary scene, the two finally have wild sex out in the dark, damp forest.
What makes it startling is that Tina, to that point, had presented as female and Vero as male — but in the heat of the moment, Tina is shocked to find that she actually has a penis that produces when she is aroused. Vore, aware of what they are, is prepared for this, but she is not, and their encounter in the woods rips down the last barrier Tina has between her performance of humanness and her internal animal impulses. It’s a sequence bursting with catharsis, and to find out how they struck the balance between tender intimacy and raw troll passion, Vulture chatted with director Ali Abbasi and his star, Eva Melander, about how it came together.
Become the Troll
After seeing Melander in Border, meeting her in person is immediately disorienting. With her bright blue eyes, loosely curled blonde hair, and entirely evolved brow line, she looks 100 percent more “lovely Swedish actress” than she does “unhappy Swedish troll,” a fact that made Abbasi hesitant to cast her at first. The director had hoped to avoid prosthetics and effects makeup by finding a brilliant actress who also looked more, well, naturally troll-like, but after nearly two years of searching and exhausting “the whole registry of Scandinavian actors,” he knew Melander and Milonoff were the only two who connected deeply enough with the roles, and who had the right chemistry with one another. And that meant putting his leads through full troll transformations.
To develop a more stocky, powerful appearance, Melander took on a bodybuilder’s regiment of training four days a week and eating every 90 minutes. She gained 40 pounds to be Tina, a fact she is very proud of. “It’s my fat! It’s my muscles!” the actress declares when asked if prosthetic padding was used to fill out her frame. “I’m overtrained and overfed, so you get the density, which I really liked. I like transformation. That’s what I love with my work, and I realized that this is probably the biggest transformation I will do in my whole career.”
In addition to the body work, Melander’s days on set started about seven hours before shooting, so the makeup team could turn her into Tina. The first time Abbasi ever saw her in character, he was stunned silent while his brain tried to process who it was. The physically intensive process of becoming the character helped Melander immerse herself in Tina, a creature that exists in a world she wasn’t meant for, and who has never even known how her body literally fits with someone else’s. The tension Tina constantly carries makes the eventual act of shedding it all the more powerful.
This Is Not Netflix and Chill
In Lindqvist’s original story, Tina and Vore’s encounter is rather pedestrian — a relative term when discussing an intersex troll love scene — taking place in the cottage he rents from her where they have sex on his bed. It’s written sweetly, and feels very much like a scene about a teenager losing their virginity. But Abbasi found the whole setting too clean, and worse still, too human.
As he saw it, Tina and Vore would want to be where they felt most comfortable, which meant putting them in the natural world. “My main concern was realism,” said Abbasi, who from the planning stages of Border was concerned about the whole thing becoming too fantastical. This is a movie about experiencing alienation and otherness and being detached from lives we lead — that just happens to star a pair of mythical creatures. “This scene shouldn’t be this kind of deliberate ‘Come to my house. Watch some Netflix. See what happens.’ It should be more like casual sex, back of my car, that feeling.”
Melander herself said she viewed Tina as basically half-human and half-animal, having spent her entire life suppressing the animal side while performing a facsimile of what she observed as human. “She is someone who is not made for civilization,” says Melander. “I was working with how she never fit in physically. Humans made all these hotels and bars and tables and cars, so every chair she was sitting on, every door she was walking in, I had that in my system, that it’s wrong. Coming home to her house, it felt so small. And not just a house! They have to put different rooms in it as well to make it even harder. That makes a claustrophobia feeling, and in this sex scene all that stuff goes away.”
All that internalized tension projects outwardly as a stiff awkwardness, turning Tina into a time bomb of unexpressed emotion. Her connection with Vore is like a key that unlocks her whole being, making their love scene almost easy compared to the challenges of tailoring herself for urban life.
Go Full Animal
Melander said that from the start of filming, she was able to push her performance and be as vulnerable as Tina required because Abbasi made a safe environment for the actors to explore. Likewise, the director said Melander’s bravery and focus set the tone for everyone else involved to match her commitment. By the time the sex scene came around, Melander had already transformed her entire body and had been living every day as a character who feels liberated when she is naked in the woods. Whatever “private worries” Eva Melander had disappeared inside of Tina.
“She’s free, and I think to have sex is really like going into the animal side,” the actress explained. “Also, sex and violence are close. To physically get close to each other I felt like I should bite. I’m so strongly sexually attracted I want to bite you!” Your heart aches for Tina’s fear and inexperience when the scene begins, but Vore guides her through, and once she realizes how her sex organs actually work, Tina lets loose and ravages him against a mossy slope on the ground.
It’s perhaps the most natural moment of her whole life, and to effectively capture unselfconscious spontaneity, the director was sweating all the details, so his stars could relax into the scene. As Tina and Vore were reaching new heights of intimacy, the director was focused on logistics. What camera angle would best capture her growing penis? When should she take off his pants? Should she penetrate him from the front or the back? To get the final cut, Abbasi also had his actors shoot various takes that emphasized different moods. A carnal encounter, then a more sensitive and careful one, then go full animal, then restrain it. He needed to get the complete spectrum of passionate troll sex, but without deviating from the movie’s grounded tone. No one was about to start spontaneously glowing or something.
“I didn’t want to make, like, a Lord of the Rings sex scene. I wanted to make a sex scene that would actually be natural,” says Abbasi, who was cautioned about the story’s unadaptability at the outset, but took that warning as motivation. “I think this is one of those moments you ask yourself, ‘What the fuck am I doing?’ You’re looking at a monitor like, ‘Okay, this is my job.’” And who knows? Maybe ennui-laden beautiful troll love will be just what the Oscar voters ordered come next spring.