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Every Oscar season arrives with some weird, bad, or downright baffling nominees. This year’s most offbeat choice is Border, a Swedish fantasy/horror film that won the Un Certain Regard prize at Cannes but was never going to be a mainstream U.S. hit. Nominated in the makeup and hairstyling category alongside Vice and Mary Queen of Scots, it features people eating live maggots, and an ambitiously bizarre sex scene involving prosthetic genitals.
Individual categories are nominated by their own branch, and you can see why the Academy’s hair and makeup artists nominated Border. To play the main character, Tina, actress Eva Melander had to wear heavy facial prosthetics, giving her a bulbous forehead, fake teeth, uneven skin, and lank hair. The transformation was astonishingly convincing. Border’s entire concept rests on the idea of Tina being noticeably ugly, and makeup artists Pamela Goldammer (Hellboy II) and Göran Lundström (Cloud Atlas) absolutely deserve that nomination for Tina’s strange but realistic appearance.
Tina lives in a secluded rural house with her shitty boyfriend, using her superhuman sense of smell (yes) to sniff out contraband as an airport border guard. While she has some odd habits and is kind of socially awkward, you can’t help but think that society would be much more forgiving if she was pretty. Her ugliness marks her as an outsider, which is why it’s so exciting for her to meet someone who looks the same.
The identity of Border’s second main character, Vore (Eero Milonoff), is the film’s first big, spoilery twist. He and Tina meet when Vore shows up at the airport, setting off Tina’s super-smelling alarm. She’s instantly fascinated, starting a courtship that’s both repulsive and erotic, as the two characters eat live bugs together and sniff each other’s bodies. Vore eventually tells Tina that they’re both trolls—yes, actuScandinavianian mythological trolls—and they have sex, revealing that neither character has typical reproductive organs. (While this isn’t presented as a transphobic twist, there is a shock value component, so maybe Google some spoilers if that’s a concern.)
Border is a wild ride to the end, exploring a politically charged fantasy concept while sticking to a realistic tone with a dark sense of humor. Without using much violence or traditional horror tropes, it’s memorably gross. Director Ali Abassi can inspire disgust with everyday details like Tina eating slimy noodles, but at the same time, Border is sensitive and sympathetic to its protagonist. In other words, it’s both a genuinely good movie and the kind of thing you can plausibly make someone watch as a dare.
As well as being a strong contender against the makeup we saw in Vice and Mary Queen of Scots, Border is a great example of how the Oscars bring obscure films to a wider audience. While the main categories are dominated by commercial and critical hits like Black Panther and Roma, the Oscars also draw attention to less flashy creative fields (i.e. editing or cinematography) and smaller films that didn’t benefit from a big promotional push.
The Academy Awards celebrate artistic achievement and introduce cool movies to new audiences, which is why so many people hated last week’s proposal to present four categories during commercial breaks. The Academy bosses (and broadcaster ABC) were keen to shorten the ceremony, announcing that the awards for cinematography, live action short, editing, and makeup would all be presented off-screen. This decision was reversed after a public outcry from famous filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese, and we should all be thankful the Academy changed its mind. If they’d stuck with the original plan, millions of people would be robbed of the chance to see Border’s nomination clips—and maybe, just maybe, be tempted into watching one of the weirdest films of 2018.
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Border will be available in the U.S. to stream on Feb. 26.
Gavia Baker-Whitelaw is a staff writer at the Daily Dot, covering geek culture and fandom. Specializing in sci-fi movies and superheroes, she also appears as a film and TV critic on BBC radio. Elsewhere, she co-hosts the pop culture podcast Overinvested. Follow her on Twitter: @Hello_Tailor