“I Smelled It on Him”  – Wonderful Trolls and Disgusting Humans in Border

PEER REVIEWED. This article analyzes how 'Gräns' (2018, 'Border') uses the emotions of wonder and disgust to combine the fantastic with realism in entirely new ways. 'Border' was received as impossible to categorize or, as one reviewer wrote, it is “pure, limitless magic, turning the world we seem to know inside out and giving it an entire new context.”

The Swedish film Border by Iranian-Swedish director Ali Abbasi is set in the rural Stockholm archipelago where ferries unload passengers from Finland. In the opening scene, we see custom control guard Tina (Eva Melander) sniff the air and look out over the Archipelago Sea. She picks up a locust, examines it and carefully puts it down in the grass. In the next scene, Tina and a colleague observe passengers entering Sweden and we see she can smell contraband items on people. The following day she stops a man in a business suit. They find nothing. Tina then asks for the man’s phone and sniffs it. Later, Chief of Police (Ann Petrén) asks, “So you find a memory card filled with child pornography on someone you’ve never seen before. How did that happen?” Tina replies, “I didn’t know what was on the card, but …” “But what?” “I smelled it on him.”

Tina smelling disgusting content on a phone. 'Gräns' / 'Border' (Ali Abbasi, 2018). Framegrab.

Tina’s olfactory abilities are extraordinary. How, we wonder, can one smell crimes on a phone? She later pats an elk in the forest, and she knows in advance when deer will cross the road. Throughout the film, our sense of wonder about unusual events is interwoven with our emotion of disgust about various actions. We are disgusted by pedophile crimes, a disgust voiced by the police, and we are disgusted by the eating of wrong food. Tina protests when Vore (Eero Milonoff) eats scrubs – “you don’t do that, it’s disgusting.”

Emotions studies describe wonder and disgust as opposite emotions: The experience of wonder opens our senses, and we are drawn to objects we find wonderful so we can learn more (Frijda 1986: 18). In contrast, when we feel disgust we block our nose and feel nausea and withdraw to avoid further contact with the object we find disgusting (Kelly 2011: location 363). The two emotions are employed in different genres, wonder in genres with happy ends such as fantasy and fairy tales, and disgust in genres that emphasize violence such as crime drama and horror. Border, however, combines wonder and disgust in new ways which viewers found surprising and weird, but later as the plot takes unexpected turns, find miraculous and wonderful. In this article I draw from emotions studies (Frijda 1986, Haidt et. al, 1994, Silvia 2006, Kelly 2011, Burton 2015), the concept of liminality (Turner 1974) and Levi-Strauss’ theory of totem animals (Levi-Strauss 2005). The first section provides a genre context for Border, the second section introduces wonder, disgust, and liminality, and the analytical sections examine how the film uses animals to dissolve binary concepts of human and animal, disgust and wonder. In conclusion, I see Border as an example of what Turner calls the liminoid, which is when social structures and norms are subverted and new world views are born. Border calls for us to recalibrate cognitive schemas for animal and human, wonder and disgust.

Border and a Question of Genre(s)

As said, Tina is a troll and her parents died in a hospital where they were used as guinea pigs. Tina, whose real name is Reva, was adopted by humans when she was two years old and told she had a chromosome deficiency causing her ugly appearance. Shortly after stopping the man with child pornography she stops the Finnish man Vore who has the same ugly appearance as herself. She falls in love with him and he reveals they are trolls. When she discovers that Vore traffics human infants to the pedophiles, she helps the police arrest him. Vore escapes and at the end of the film he sends Tina a box with a child. Their troll child.

Border is based on the novella Gräns (The Border) by the Swedish author John Ajvide Lindqvist (2013). In the novella, Tina is a custom guard with an extraordinary olfactory sense, but there are no pedophiles and Vore abducts human infants as vengeance for humans' genocide of trolls. Lindqvist is known for his vampire novel Låt den rätte komma in (Let the Right One In, 2004), which was adapted into the Swedish award-winning film Let the Right One In byTomas Alfredson  (2008), and the American remake Let Me In (Matt Reeves, 2010).

The novel combined horror with themes of pedophilia and bullying, a critique of the Swedish welfare state, and a realist writing style.1 The novel and its adaptations were received as horror despite a realist style and content. In contrast, Border was perceived as impossible to categorize. Reviewers described it as “something eerie and rather wonderful” (Time Out), “a chilly Scandinavian bedtime tale” (Boston Globe), “a compelling, sometimes excruciating fairy tale for our times” (Empire Magazine), and a “fantasy, romance, thriller” (The New York Times). Danish reviewers called the film “a fairy-tale existential thriller romance you have never seen the like of” (Jyllandsposten), both “horror” and “a modern folk tale” (Weekendavisen), and one review pointed to as many genres as “fairy tale,” “troll love drama,” “a genre innovation,” “psychological drama,” and “Nordic genre realism” (Information). In short, it was agreed that Border “juggles multiple tones and storylines” (AwardsCircuit.com), and “is so dark, bizarre, and yet sentimental that its very existence feels like a miracle” (Politiken). Border opened “unexpected territory” (Miami New Times) and “the specific, felt experience of being adrift between social boundaries and categories” (Film Comment Magazine). It registered as drawing from multiple genres including being an art movie with “the wry playfulness and clear-eyed strangeness of Lars Von Trier, but somehow more earnest, and more empathetic. It’s truly something special” (FilmDrunk). The film was, as one reviewer put it, “pure, limitless magic, turning the world we seem to know inside out and giving it an entire new context” (Carlsen 2018).

I suggest this difficulty in pinpointing the genre(s) of Border is due to an unusual combination of fantastic and realist elements (trolls and pedophiles) with emotions typical of different genres (wonder and disgust), and a realist style. Even the film’s supernatural tropes were seen as unusually weird (Crucchiola 2018). While there are many genre elements at play, two genres stand out: the fantastic and realism. Both are super-genres or umbrella genres with several subgenres.

The fantastic is a wide genre concerned with the supernatural, the not-real, and the counterfactual. Literary scholar Daniel Scott calls the fantastic a “general super-genre cluster that encompasses all fiction dealing with the non-real, i.e. science fiction, fantasy, alternate history writing, and similar genres” (2018: 19). Film scholar Katherine Fowkes similarly uses “fantastic” as umbrella term for genres that have “an ontological break,” which is when the audience understands that an element breaks with our natural laws (2010: 5). Within the fantastic, the major subgenres are horror, fantasy, and science fiction, which each have typical genre tropes. We should not confuse the fantastic as umbrella genre with the subgenre of the fantastic, which literary theorist Tzvetan Todorov famously characterized as based on a hesitation between a natural and a supernatural explanation of events (1987: 25). In this article, I use “fantastic” to indicate the super-genre and its fantasic elements, and not Todorov’s subgenre.

Scott underlines that the contemporary fantastic departs from pre-modern fantastic texts, which were created in a time where people held supernatural beliefs. A secular time does not believe in witches, vampires, or trolls, and we may ask why such texts remain attractive. French sociologist Roger Caillois notes: “The fantastic is always a break in the acknowledged order, an irruption of the inadmissible within the changeless everyday legality” (quoted in Todorov 1987: 26). Often this break transports characters and audiences away from reality into alternate worlds. However, the fantastic trolls do not transport characters into a spectacular secondary world. To the contrary, the trolls remain in the real and disgusting human world. The fantastic is not an escape, it instead forces us to look at our world anew.

'Border' calls for us to recalibrate cognitive schemas for animal and human, wonder and disgust.

Realism, the second super-gerne, is also a broad genre. In "Realism as a Third Film Practice" (2011) film scholar Birger Langkjær points out that “realism” can denote a style with a realist similitude, a realist genre (for example the nineteenth century realist novel or British kitchen sink realism), and a film practice. Langkjær mentions two film practices, genre films (Hollywood narration) and art films (European state-subsidized films). These are respectively seen as “popular, commercial and accessible genre films” and “high-brow, state-supported and difficult autonomous films” (2011: 45). To these Langkjær adds a third film practice, realism. Realism “is an umbrella-category in between genre films and art films that covers different sub-categories” (Ibid: 46). Realism incorporates elements from both genre films and art films, it has complex characters, emphasizes plot but has an open ending, and the plot is about adapting to a situation rather than reach a goal (Ibid: 47). Realism “creates its own mixture of elements in films that can be accessible and engaging but yet also serious and ‘deep’” (Ibid: 48). Among realist genres, Langkjær mentions social realism and psychological realism. The first focuses on society and “specific ways to deal with a social environment” (Ibid: 49) whereas the latter focuses on the individual. “Overall, psychological realism is more about coming to terms with oneself than about actions in the outer world, and the narrative structure mirrors this inner development” (Ibid: 51).

As we will see, Border combines the fantastic with realism as style and a film practice, but not in a straightforward way of making the fantastic real or the real fantastic. Instead, dichotomies are dissolved and the viewer invited to look at the world with new eyes.

Wonder, Disgust, and Liminality

Because the fantastic breaks with the laws of nature, a key emotion across all fantastic subgenres is wonder. In horror, we wonder about the nature of the monster, in science fiction we may wonder about life on other planets, and in fantasy, we wonder about secondary worlds and their inhabitants. But what is wonder?

In Heaven and Hell (2015) philosopher and psychiatrist Neel Burton describes several types of wonder, where one is wonder as curiosity linked to “puzzlement and perplexity” (2015: 201), another is wonder as “discovery and creation” (Ibid: 203), which leads to new knowledge, and a third is wonder as awe in front of for example nature’s grand vistas. Cognitive psychology links wonder to surprise which is our response to “unexpected stimuli” (Frijda 1986: 18). When we encounter something new and inexplicable, we open ourselves to new information and search for explanations. Psychologist Paul J. Silvia calls such a search for information a novelty check. A novelty check is when we try to understand the thing that surprises us by seeing it as “new, ambiguous, complex, obscure, uncertain, mysterious, contradictory, unexpected, or otherwise not understood” (Silvia 2006, location 602). Border precisely made reviewers perform a novelty check because the film created the “experience of being adrift between social boundaries and categories” (Film Comment Magazine). From an evolutionary perspective, such novelty checks are why we find fantastic fiction appealing. Cognitive film scholar Torben Grodal says the “radical deviations” in fantastic films are their attractive feature. The fantastic intensifies the strange, it “makes life more complicated, more colorful, and more uncertain … The interest in radical deviations from or negations of laws and common sense is in a paradoxical way a function of our innate rationality” (2009: 104, 98). The fantastic surprises us and stimulates our search for new information. This is precisely why philosophers see wonder as a central emotion. Thus, Aristotle believed wonder was the origin of philosophy because when we wonder we discover our ignorance and start to ask questions (Burton 2015: 199).

Where wonder makes us investigate an object, disgust makes us pull back and make a so-called gape face where we wrinkle our nose to block out foul smell and open our mouth to vomit.2 Philosopher Daniel Kelly in Yuck (2011) explains that the emotion of disgust originates from food repulsion, which is aversion to food that may be poisonous. Disgust is active in the anterior insular cortex of the brain, the section that processes smell and taste and is called the gustatory cortex (2011, location 2865). We share food repulsion with other animal species, but disgust and the gape face are unique to humans (Ibid: location 881). The function of food disgust is to preserve our physical health and protect us against poisonous food. Over time, food disgust was adapted to complex social functions and became moral or conceptual disgust.The function of moral disgust is to protect society against things we see as a threat to our social health.

In a speculative vein, psychologists Jonathan Haidt, Clark McCauley and Paul Rozin distinguish between core disgust and what they call animal-reminder disgust (1994). Core disgust is concerned with what we put in our mouth, and animal-reminder disgust is concerned with the objects a society marks as disgusting, among which are “sex, personal hygiene, enevelope violations [body violations], and death” (1994: 712). Haidt, McCauley and Rozin suggest that,“disgust is a defensive emotion that guards us against the recognition of our animality and, perhaps ultimately, of our own mortality” (Ibid: 712). Thus, where wonder sends us out to learn more, disgust rejects knowledge and refuses to accept our animality and mortality.

Let me finally introduce liminality. In Liminality in Fantastic Fiction (2012) literary theorist Sandor Klapcsik shows how fantastic fictions create stories where social categories and binaries are upended. Latin limen means threshold, and the folklorist Arnold van Gennep used liminality about situations such as coming of age, marriage, and birth in pre-modern societies (Turner 1974: 56). Liminal situations have three phases: the individual’s separation from society, a transition phase outside society, and the reintegration back into society. In the second phase, transition, the social rules are suspended. The anthropologist Victor Turner extended liminal situations to our modern society where liminality can serve change, critique, even revolution. “There is an instant of pure potentiality when everything trembles in the balance” (Ibid: 75). Turner subdivides liminal moments into liminal and liminoid, where the first is a temporary escape from society’s norms and rules, and liminoid moments can transport us into unknown territory.

Thinking with animals

Let us now turn to the movie. The film poster shows Tina in a forest clearing with a fox at her feet, an elk and a deer at her sides, and birds above her. It is clear that animals are important.

Movie poster for 'Gräns' (Ali Abbasi, 2018).

Structuralist anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss in Totemism argues that a totem animal makes sense – becomes meaningful – from its position in a human world order: “The animals in totemism cease to be solely or principally creatures which are feared, admired, or envied … [they] are chosen not because they are ‘good to eat’ but because they are ‘good to think’” (Levi-Strauss 1962, location 1377). The animals in Border are not totem animals in a strict religious sense, yet they have been chosen and invested with symbolic meaning. According to Levi-Strauss, totem animals make sense “through their respective relations of opposition and correlation” (Ibid: location 1414). These structuralist relations of opposites and correlations are similar to the way the human mind uses schemas to understand the world. “A schema is a cognitive structure, a network of associations that organizes and guides an individual’s perception” (Bem 198i: 355). The mind has schemas for all objects, and schemas are typically organized in binary opposites (“boy” and “girl”) and linked to schemas we have learned are connected (blue and pink, strong and weak).

The animals in Border turn this conventional binary thinking upside down. The film has several animal species: trolls, humans, pit bulls, tiny animals (insects and worms), a fox, an elk, and deer. Each species has its own meaning.

Tina doesn’t fit Western beauty standards with her heavy-set face, thin hair, slouching stature, and bulky body and only when we learn she is a troll can we understand why Vore says, “you’re perfect.” The troll is a supernatural creature more than a thousand years old that comes from Nordic mythology. According to literary scholar John Lindow trolls are versatile beings that are “shifting and changing, hard to pin down” (2014: 12). In Nordic mythology they can quote poetry or be mute beasts, they can be small, human size, or large giants, and they can have one, three, nine, or twelve heads. They can even transform into a rock and become part of the landscape. Trolls are associated “with the wild rather than the domestic or tame; with outside rather than inside; with nature rather than culture” and “[w]hat most clearly distinguishes trolls from humans is that trolls are outside the human community” (Ibid: 19, 53). A troll opens a third space outside our schemas for “human” and “animal.” Tina and Vore cannot be beasts since they pass as humans, yet they are not entirely accepted because people find them strange, ugly, and repulsive. They live inside houses but are at home in nature.

The next animal are humans. We are an animal species that has elevated itself to “an absolutely separate and exceptional being” apart from other animals and with the right to consider itself a “who” and other animals a “what” which can be used (Turner, Sellbach and Broglio 2018: 4). This view, called human exceptionalism, is today challenged by posthuman and post-anthropocentric accounts of the world that challenge the belief that humans are masters of the planet. If we look at the humans in Border they are not exceptional. They are instead pitiful, sad, helpless, repulsive, and disgusting. The police cannot apprehend criminals without Tina’s help, the border guards cannot detect contraband, Tina’s father is a liar who has kept her troll nature a secret, Tina’s unemployed boyfriend is a parasite living off her, and the pedophiles are portrayed as perverted sociopaths. The humans live inside, in ugly and unwelcoming houses.

Next are the pit bulls. Tina accepts Roland’s dogs – the novella has twelve and the film three – because she needs company. The dogs bark ferociously and attack her at sight. They live in a kennel in front of the house and when Tina is away Roland takes the bitch Tara into the couch. There is a hint of perversity in how he keeps Tara close and lets her lick his face. If the pit bull was a totem animal it could symbolize aggression and strength, yet here the domesticated dog is kept for company and breeding. The pit bulls do not invoke our respect, but our pity. The pale, skinny, unemployed Roland draws his identity from the dogs, yet Vore silences the pit bulls with a single growl. Trolls outrank dogs and humans, and Tina later silences Roland with a growl.

The remaining animals are in nature. When Tina returns from work, she walks barefoot in the forest where she meets a fox. At night it comes to her window, a threshold between inside and outside. After she has told Roland to leave, the fox returns and jumps into her car. Borders between inside and outside dissolve and where Tina earlier wore a pink jogging suit, she now wears a loose sweatshirt with a print of a wolf. The production design uses animals both as beings and as decoration (the living room also has a wall tapestry with deer).

In nature Tina encounters an elk, a large animal that causes road accidents every year in Sweden. Unlike dogs, elk cannot be domesticated. The elk stands silently next to Tina while she pats its flank. Tina is on friendly foot with the fox and the elk, and the camera holds images of Tina with the animals so long that we experience wonder and because the elk is huge and majestic, we may also experience awe. Psychologists Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt describe awe as a “peak experience” which comes from a perception of vastness. Awe is “the perception that we are in the presence of a superior power, something greater than ourselves” (2003: 302). The elk is larger and greater than humans, and it has a central function in the film.

Last are the tiny animals: grubs, rainworms, locusts. Writhing and crawling animals solicit core disgust and are universally seen as disgusting (Haidt, McCauley, Rozin 1994). Yet Tina treats the locust with respect, and if she first declines to eat a grub, she will later eat rainworms and insects. The tiny animals may be disgusting from a human point of view, but they are nutritious.

So, summing up, humans live inside, the wild animals live outside, and trolls and pit bulls exist uncomfortably in-between, neither fully inside or outside.

Disgusting humans

Disgust evolved from food repulsion and Border raises the question of “good” versus “bad” food. Roland eats sweets in front of the television and Tina eats pills and drinks protein powder to lose weight. Tina can barely eat the overcooked spaghetti with meat sauce Roland makes for dinner. Different with insects. Tina finds an insect incubator in Vore’s bag, a small box where he produces the grubs he uses to feed the hisiit (this is a soulless troll infant coming from an unfertilized egg). Tina visits Vore at his hostel, where he is outside searching for grubs. When he eats it, she says, “you don’t do that, that’s disgusting.” “Says who?” “Says everyone.” He offers her the grub and the surprise on her face tells us it tastes good. Society may dictate which food is “good” and “bad” but this knowledge can be challenged. I earlier mentioned that the food-disgust system – the belief that a food threatens our physical health – evolved into conceptual disgust so objects we believe are a threat to our social health are rejected too (Kelly 2011, location 2039). This extension from food to concept is a transition from taste to social values, from nutrition to norms, from physique to ethics. With the gape face disgust became a social emotion we display on our faces so we can warn others (Ibid: location 875).

Border also moves from food disgust to conceptual disgust and transfers disgust to appearances and aesthetics, to people and places. Physical appearances can be repulsive, as when Tina shops in a grocery store and a costumer stares at her with an expression of disbelief and disgust. People also find Vore repulsive. Roland calls him “some serial killer” and the neighbors look terrified when he comes to borrow a saucepan. Ugliness-as-otherness is a theme in the novella, where Tina recalls a childhood friend telling her, “I wish that I could meet someone just like you but who doesn’t look like you” (Lindqvist 2013: 5). Tina is acutely aware of her ugliness. “She had learned to endure the life in the cage, accept her limitations. But she refused to look at herself in the mirror. The revulsion she saw in people’s eyes when they met her for the first time was mirror enough” (Ibid: 6). Like the realistic-looking food, Abbasi also went for a realist troll look fashioned from a silicon mask and makeup instead of from CGI effects. Actress Eva Melander gained eighteen kilos and trained four days a week to develop bulk (New York Film Festival 2018). The troll body is brutish and ugly – what is “ugly” using the conventional Western schema for the female body – and “disgusting” with dirt under Tina’s fingernails and saliva spurting from her mouth as she kisses Vore.

Realist troll makeup, not CGI, in 'Gräns' / 'Border' (Ali Abbasi, Meta Spark & Kärnfilm, 2018).

Ugliness interweaves with the production design of interiors. Naja Aggerholm, Jakob Ion Wille and Kim Toft Hansen in Production Design (2020) explain that the function of production design is to visualize the fiction’s imaginary world. Production design includes locations, interior sets, costumes, colors, and all parts of the visual storytelling. Border uses the denotative set, which is a set the audience does not notice because it is transparent and does not call for our attention (2020, 41). The interiors are ugly and reminds us of kitchen sink realism, an aesthetic style in social realism films that show the poor living conditions of the working class (Langkjær 2011: 48). Tina and her neighbors may not exactly be poor, but they live in the forest in small and ugly houses with cheap IKEA kitchens where cupboards hang slanted. In short, human civilization looks unappealing.

The exception is the pedophiles who prove the point that like disgusting food can be nutritious, tasteful appearances can hide corruption. The man with the cell phone wears a nice suit and the apartment where the pedophile footage is made is stylishly furnished. Tina, however, is not deceived by appearances and when she and the police detective knocks on the door, she can sniff disgusting behavior. Without a warrant, they cannot enter, but Tina tells the Chief of Police, “they’re doing horrible things in there. I know it,” and the Chief then allows them to break into the apartment. Tina finds a hidden camera and when the detective looks at the footage he exclaims, “fy faen” (damn disgusting). The Chief of Police can barely contain an expression of disgust when she questions the suspect who rejects any knowledge about the film. “That’s disgusting, turn it off,” he says.

Conceptual disgust marks things and people as disgusting.3 Such marking is similar to the process of stigmatization (Goffman 1986, Kelly 2011: 276), an example of which is the infamous Yellow Star worn by Jews in Nazi Germany. Stigmatization and disgust are both warning systems, but where stigmatization targets specific behavior or traits, disgust works via taste (the gustatory system) and operates as an emotion rather than a belief. Stigmatization has a clear target, and disgust is a net cast out to capture more loosely defined appearances, aesthetics, and behavior.

Disgust functions on a continuum where things can more or less disgusting. Tina and Vore are ugly, yet troll ugliness is on the same continuum as human ugliness. The humans do are not conventionally beautiful but are overweight or skinny, unhealthy pale, wrinkled and worried-looking, and thin-haired. Also, pedophilia is practiced by more people than the couple who produces and profits from films. Vore, too, has been abused. “They managed to keep [my parents] alive for 10 years while they tortured them. Meanwhile, I was moved from one orphanage to another.” “You were abused?” Tina asks. “Humans are parasites that use everything on earth for their own amusement. Even their own offspring. The entire human race is a disease … disgusting humans cannot keep their hands off their own offspring.”

Wonderful trolls

As mentioned, Burton speaks of several types of wonder which I divide into three types: curiosity, wonder, and awe. We are surprised and feel curiosity when we encounter something we cannot explain and curiosity triggers a search for information. We are not very curious about the content on the memory card since we guess its criminal nature when the man tries to swallow it. But we are mystified about Tina’s abilities and appearance and we suspect a chromosome deficiency is not the answer. Wonder-as-curiosity makes us start a novelty check. Surprising elements characterize the fantastic where texts have “semantic vibrations” that sends us out in a world where “mazes, miracles, and puzzles is a staple…” (Alexander 2018: 116). The fox represents this wonder-as-curiosity and its habitat, nature, is a site of exploration.

I distinguish wonder-as-curiosity from wonder proper as the first relating to finding an enigma and the latter to do with opening ourselves to look for answers. Fairy tale scholar Cristina Bacchilega underlines wonder as movement: “Wonder in fairy tales invites us to be moved by what in the everyday appears extraordinary; to wander off socially sanctioned paths and to imagine what might be; to explore alternate possibilities and futures. As a state of being and action, wonder is both the trigger and the product of transformation, ours and the world” (Bacchilega 2017: 8). Burton too places wonder outside the known: “To wonder is also to wander, to stray from society and its norms and constructs, to be alone, to be free – which is, of course, deeply subversive” (Burton 2015: 203). Where civilization is ugly, nature provides wonder. Rachel Carson in The Sense of Wonder says nature opens our senses: “Exploring nature . . . is largely a matter of becoming receptive to what lies all around you. It is learning again to use your eyes, ears, nostrils and fingertips, opening up the disused channels of sensory impression. For most of us, knowledge of our world comes largely through sight, yet we look about with such unseeing eyes that we are partially blind” (Carson 1998: 38).

The wonderful nature in 'Gräns' / 'Border' (Ali Abbasi, 2018). Still: Camera Film. Archive: DFI Stills & Posters Archive.

Tina has sex with Vore in nature and discovers her penis inside her abdomen, a member that for the first time exits and unfolds when she is sexually aroused. And it is in the forest, not in her bed, she roars in orgasm. The troll reproductive system is hinted at earlier when a male border guard conducts the search of Vore. Afterwards, he tells Tina the passenger was a she and that Tina should have done the search. “Did he have a sex change operation?” Tina asks. “Frankly, I didn’t ask him.” We later learn that in the troll species, males have a vagina and give birth and females have a penis. From a human perspective, trolls upset schemas for human and animal, for male and female, and for inside and outside.

In contrast to the disgusting human sex – pedophile abuse and Roland trying to have sex with Tina –troll sex is reciprocal, an epiphany of sensations, astonishment, ecstasy, excitement, lust, and pleasure. When they wake up in the morning the nude Tina and Vore run laughing and screaming through the forest to a lake where they splash in the water and kiss, a moving picture of pure joy unbound by human norms. The sex scene made an impression on reviewers. In an online review, Elvis The Alien said, “it has the weirdest scene I have ever seen,” (Elvis The Alien 2019), headlines read “Let’s Talk About That Wild Intersex Troll Love Scene in Border” (Crucchiola 2018), and it was “a scene of troll sex that made audiences squirm in their seats” at the Cannes Film Festival (Pond 2018).

Let us briefly look at how we feel emotions. An emotion has multiple phases. We first experience a stimuli, we next evaluate the stimuli (does it present danger?), and we then react to it (freeze, flee, fight, or examine closer). Emotions are sometimes seen as “hot” and “cold” (Lazarus 1991: 144). A “hot” emotion is invested with strong personal motives, like anger or fear which make us act immediately. In a modern society, we learn to control hot emotions or they quickly get us in trouble. Cold emotions have less personal investment; they instead make us stop and think. Silvia calls them “epistemology-based emotions” (Silvia 2005: 89). In cognitive terms, curiosity makes us look for information and it can make us reevaluate our existing knowledge. In other words, curiosity can change how we understand our world.

We now return to troll sex and to wonder. Like the film recalibrates our evaluation of good and bad food, it also recalibrates our evaluation of what can be wonderful. Traditionally, the fantastic places fantastic elements in well-defined subgenres where for example horror uses fear and disgust (in horror tiny animals are always disgusting) and fantasy visualizes the fantastic elements as impressive, spectacular and beautiful whether they are dangerous or not. But Border combines the fantastic and realism in a new and surprising way. The realist style with handheld camera, natural color scheme, and handmade special effects (as opposed to CGI-created effects) create a tactile, sensory, affective, and “sticky” viewer experience where we mimic characters’ low-level physical sensations of eating grubs, feeling earth under our feet, and splashing in water. When we engage with characters, we feel with them.

Border deviates from the conventional fantastic where the female protagonist usually fits a schema for “heroine” which is associated with youth, a slim body, beauty, and having social norms like good taste, good manners, and so forth. But Tina is middle age, fat, and ugly, and her love interest looks like a fat serial killer. The sex scene where Tina and Vore spit and grunt is far from the typical sex scene in film. Abbasi took inspiration from how dogs copulate to present troll sex (Border Cast and Crew Q&A TIFF 2018). “My main concern was realism,” Abbasi explained, “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” (Crucchiola 2018). The combination of the fantastic and realism creates an experience out of the ordinary, even out of the ordinary fantastic, an experience which viewers were uncertain how to process and how to react to. Elvis the Alien (2019) describes his experience this way:

Believe me when I say I found the weirdest movie of 2018. This movie is so goddamn weird that I have been thinking about it all week. And it has one of the most awkward scenes I have ever seen. In my entire life. And I’m not joking. At all. … Did you ever see a scene in a movie that made you wince? … Yeah, there’s one of those scenes in this movie and perhaps the strangest part of all, I really liked this movie. The acting is amazing, the story is interesting, the movie kept me engaged the entire time. … It’s so strange and well done, I love it. … This movie is so good, I can’t recommend it enough. It’s so creative. It’s so unique.

Conclusion: Recalibrating disgust and wonder

If we return to the liminal and liminoid, the liminal inverts social structures, but the liminoid subverts them. The liminal has rules for rule-breaking, “[e]ven the breaking of rules has to be done during initiation” (emphasis in original, Turner 1974: 72). In contrast, the liminoid is “anti-structure” because it is “not a structural reversal … but the liberation of human capacities of cognition, affect, volition, creativity, etc., from the normative constraints …” (Ibid: 75). The film subverts expectations for realism (trolls) and also expectations for the fantastic (troll sex is “weird” and makes audiences “squirm”). It offers a liminoid experience and a new view of the world.

Romance and perhaps a happy ever after. 'Gräns' / 'Border' (Ali Abbasi, Meta Spark & Kärnfilm, 2018).

I have not commented on the elk and the deer which evoke awe. In the novella, the elk is not awesome, but the film gives the elk a metaphysical dimension. It is suddenly in the road and stops the police car so Vore can kill the suspect. And when the deer are blinded by the car’s front lights, we are in awe that Tina had sensed them. Like the scenes with the elk, it is a moment pregnant with spirituality. Awe is a variant of wonder that is “directed at something that is much greater or more powerful than we are (Burton 2015, location 2257). Awe is an elevating emotion that can leave a long-lasting impression. It “can transform people and reorient their lives, goals, and values” (Keltner and Haidt 2003: 312).

Border was nominated an Oscar for best foreign film. At the Cannes Film Festival, it won “Un Certain Regard” and in Sweden it was nominated the Guldbagge Award (the Swedish equivalent of the Oscar) for best film, actress, supporting actor, sound, make-up, visual effects, direction, screenplay, and editing. It won the first five. Border’s interweaving of disgust and wonder, pedophiles and trolls, realist aesthetics and fantastic events invites us to take a new look at the world. A view of wonder – and awe.


1. For an analysis of Let the Right One In see Schubart, R. (2018), Mastering Fear: Women, Emotions, and Contemporary Horror. New York: Bloomsbury, 79–97.

2. See Solomon and Stone for a discussion of why emotions are not opposites. Solomon, R.C. and Stone, L.D. (2002),“On ‘Positive’ and ‘Negative’ Emotions.” In: Journal for the Theory of Social Behavior 32 (4): 417–35.

3. The trolls can be read as metaphor for the Sámi nomadic people who were segregated and sterilized by the Swedish state in the early twentieth century. For ethnic marking see Kelly, location 194.


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Suggested citation

Schubart, Rikke (2021), “I Smelled It on Him” - Wonderful Trolls and Disgusting Humans in 'Border'. Kosmorama #279 (www.kosmorama.org).