If you haven’t watched this movie yet but intend to do so, don’t read further! It is best to go in blind.
Horror and fantasy are genres that transgress our usual cultural or scientific categories, so they could potentially show radically different portrayals of women. Guadagnino intended to use the horror genre to make a feminist film of Suspiria. I think he failed to do that. The dark fairy tale Gräns is a more interesting candidate for a feminist film.
Unlike Guadagnino, Abassi – Gräns’s director – did not try to make a feminist film. He is not even a fighter for women’s rights. ‘Not that I am against it.’ However, he does find it easier to tell stories through a female protagonist.
The protagonist in Gräns is Tina. She works at the border, customs. She seems kind and gentle. She has an incredible sense of smell; she smells people’s emotions. Carrying extra liquor bottles, cigarettes, or other illegal materials, she easily sniffs them out. A man in a suit doesn’t want to hand her his phone – understandably as we soon learn – but he looks at her with contempt. Her look is not pleasing; not her hair, her face, her crooked teeth, her dirty fingernails. Her appearance doesn’t fit our standards.
Tina’s coworkers, housemate and neighbours are all friendly towards her. They greet her and seem to appreciate or at least believe her abilities with smell (and animals). But, she is still different, she stands apart, others stay at a distance. Even in her own house we keep seeing her adapting to the whims of her no-good-for-anything housemate.
Then Tina meets Vore. Vore likes Tina immediately. Vore looks a lot like Tina. But we can’t relate to him as easily as to Tina. She is attracted to him, but we hesitate to be happy for her. He seems scary. Weird.
He really likes her though. He knows more about her than we, or than she knows about herself for that matter. They start to hang out together. She tries to warn him: ‘I am flawed,’ she says, ‘Down there, it is not normal.’ You can feel her shame about herself, about how she looks. He doesn’t care. ‘There is no flaw in you,’ he says.
Vore knows Tina is a troll, like him. She doesn’t yet. So Vore is not surprised at what happens when they have sex. Trolls have different bodies and sexual characteristics than humans.
Tina and Vore have explicit sex. It is rough, animalistic and sweet at the same time. They run around naked in the woods. They swim. You can see her taking him. It might not be aesthetically pleasing for us, but it is pleasing and intimate for them.
Vore introduces Tina to a side of her she didn’t know. He introduces her to who she is. In the beginning of the film she might be an outsider, but she is ‘our’ outsider, she lives and works in the world we know and share. She can do extra things, but those things are useful.
As she gets to know herself better, we know less and less about her. She can growl aggressively. She can eat insects. Vore has different moral ideas (he doesn’t care one bit about humans) and we don’t really trust him. Can we still trust her? Tina is disappointed in humans. She discovers she has been lied to: her father knew she was different and never told her. He made her experience life as being ugly, being flawed. But Vore disappoints her too.
She is (and we are) faced with a lot of questions: Is she more like him, or more like us? Is she more female or more male? What does it mean to be a troll?
At the end of the movie one thing is clear: she doesn’t adapt to our norms anymore. She is no longer ‘ours’.
Tina is a female protagonist, we relate to her in the beginning. It is easy to see her pain of being an outsider and her shame for her appearance. Her shame reminded me of Hunger, written by Roxane Gay. A fragment:
“Shame is a difficult thing. People certainly try to shame me for being fat. When I am walking down the street, men lean out of their car windows and shout vulgar things at me about my body, how they see it, and how it upsets them that I am not catering to their gaze and their preferences and desires. I try not to take these men seriously because what they are really saying is, “I am not attracted to you. I do not want to fuck you, and this confuses my understanding of my masculinity, entitlement and place in this world.” It is not my job to please them with my body.”
Vore might be more the typical male. He looks the same as Tina, but he is far from being ashamed. He doesn’t care one bit. But, is this because he is male, or because he knows who he is? I’d say the latter. I like how Tina is treated friendly by the people around her, while at the same time nobody seems to realise she feels left out. Her being a woman is not the problem. The fact that she is different is the problem.
Plus Vore and Tina are trolls. On the one hand this opens up space for other portrayals of what it means to be masculine or feminine and about what is morally right. But their being trolls also makes them different from us from the start and maybe difficult to relate. It seems to help Tina to know who she is, a troll. But this ‘identity’ doesn’t solve it all. In the end she still has to decide and work out what it means for her to be a (female) troll. Maybe this is a feminist message.
At its heart Gräns is first and foremost a love story. Love is about connection. And to their love it is also easy for us to relate.