Border (2018), directed by Ali Abbasi – aka: The most romantic film I’ve ever seen.

Border is one of the queerest films I’ve seen in a long time, not because it uses any LGBT+ narrative elements, but because it speaks to the intolerance of normative society and the inability for people to embrace a difference that it cannot fetishize. Tina (Eva Melander) is marked as a difference by her physical appearance, her noncompliance with a standard femininity (I’m being vague here), and her ability to smell shame and guilt. We are introduced to Tina at her job as border security where she utilises her gift of smelling which in turn enables border patrol to catch people attempting to smuggle contraband. Though Tina is not fetishized in the sense that she is not made a seductive object through her difference, her differentiation is non the less used in the production of a physical/service labour.

The channel crossing, in part manned by Tina, is only one of the many borders that the title refers to, and one of the more stable at that. The establishment of the crossing is one that designates a divide in nature, parts of the earth that are this or that, leaving there and entering here, the point of crossing. But nature doesn’t always comply to the logic of the nation or state and Tina’s integration into this logic – as demonstrated by her role in its policing – crumbles after meeting Vore (Eero Milonoff) in a host of unexpected ways.

Border is the most romantic film I have ever seen. Because maybe romance is not about falling in love. Maybe it is about living in a world that, for whatever reasons, fundamentally does not understand who you are, cannot recognise the difference you embody, and therefor alienates you. Maybe romance is finding another being that halts the hum of alienation, causes respite from it, if only for a brief time.

Most “romance films” are not romantic because the characters portrayed are usually broadly assimilated into the cultural worlds they live. In mainstream films certainly, but also in independents too, there is not so much at stake if the two do not meet. Instead, it is their meeting that is joyful, sprouting into giggling, weepy eyes of hope, fear they won’t make it, before finishing on clasping hands and kissing mouths. They are about love, but not romance.

In this idea I present here, romance is that which holds alienation in the world at stake. Border hones it in and clutches romance in its centre as Tina and Vore become only those that understand one another in spaces perpetually crowded in quiet intolerance and dismissal.

The Shape of Water (2017) talks to this notion of romance, though it is a different kind of film, and melodramatically registers as romantic in a way Border refuses. Border does not entertain the cinematic tropes of romance – the music, the swooping camera, the shallow focus, the beautification of a union in camera – and this only heightens its romantic sincerity. Tina and Vore do not need to be accepted and understood by us as Abbasi shows us their corporeal beings that buck with notions of physical seduction that we so often cling to and are accustomed. During the erotic encounters of the film, the carnality of the bodies overpowers any of the soft wimpering to which we are familiarised. The brutality of animal sounds, the haptic bodies, all pores and saliva, contorting mouths and tongues, the moss and soil that integrates into the writhing skins, is romantic because its erotic logic serves to indicate the union of the two that is uncompromised to the erotics of the “Other” – by this I mean – the consensual hallucination that is the cultural expectation of eroticism at large, both within the diegetic world and society in general, as well as the general logic of cinematic representation of sex.

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