Scent of a woman mesmerizes
Swedish fable traffics in timeless dread as it seeps into your soul
Tina, the protagonist of this very dark and grown-up fairy tale from Sweden, is breathtaking; just not in a good way. Lumpy and squat, with a heavy brow and a sloping forehead, she looks like she’s got more than a little Neanderthal blood in her veins.
But she excels at her job as a customs agent at a seaside port of entry, for she has a sense of smell that is both acute and moral.
Writer/director Ali Abbasi could have easily made this into a police procedural, as Tina (Eva Melander, under a lot of makeup and prosthetics) works with law enforcement types who don’t understand her powers but can’t ignore their effectiveness.
But things take a turn when Vore (Eero Milonoff ), saunters past her checkpoint one day. He looks like he’s got the same chromosomal makeup. She’s drawn to him, and at one point confesses that she always felt ugly. He responds: “You shouldn’t listen to what humans say,” which is a pretty odd sentiment, even in Sweden, a nation where Volvo crash-test dummies are a sizable minority group.
Vore clearly knows something about her condition. Even when the weirdest … let’s say transformation … occurs, the ever-grinning Vore seems unsurprised, knowing, even smug. Finally she asks him point-blank: “What am I?” We’ve been waiting half the movie to hear the answer, and it doesn’t disappoint.
Abbasi, who won the Un Certain Regard prize when the film premiered at Cannes, seems to have constructed this fable out of bits of ancient folk tales and the collective unconscious of Scandinavia. And like 2008’s Let the Right One In — another dark Swedish thriller and, like this, based on a story by John Ajvide Lindqvist — he creates a monster movie that is firmly rooted in the present day, while losing nothing of its elemental, timeless dread.
After the film’s nicely lethargic first half, Abbasi takes to piling on more and more oddities as the pace quickens, the plot thickens, and we sense that Tina is going to have to make a stark choice between this dangerous newcomer and the people she knows. Border makes for a chilly bedtime story on a cold winter’s eve.