Love in the Style of Trolls
Last night, I saw “Border,” a 2018 Swedish movie by up and coming Swedish-Iranian director Ali Abbasi. The movie portrays the love that arises between an exceedingly homely woman who thinks she’s a human with a chromosomal abnormality and the man (who is actually a troll) who understands she is in reality a troll like him. The film is complex, strange, ugly — and beautiful. The acting, especially by Tina (Eva Melander) is superb. But, it’s the scenes of lovemaking between these two characters that fascinated me.
It was the first time I’ve seen open-mouthed, raw, animalistic sex depicted between two figures cinematically, and it was a revelation. The person I was watching the movie with laughed, but I was transfixed. I found the unabashed open-mouthed kissing, baring of teeth, growling, and grunts a breath of fresh air. Sex was not presented as demure or pretty, but as something urgent, powerful, undeniable, and arresting. Something that subsumes you and allows you to leave your “human” self behind.
Isn’t that what sex should be? An invitation by the divine to exult in our physicality? Permission to be the animals that, of course, we are? We think humans are different from the animal world, but we all have eyes that blink, hearts that beat, blood that runs. We all have sex, nurture babies, grow old, and die. We all have feelings, urges, needs.
Of course, the difference is, we have society to “civilize” us. I use that word knowing it’s become problematic in the vernacular, and that is part of my point. The Oxford Dictionary says that civilized is “an advanced stage of social and cultural development” or “polite and well-mannered.” These definitions are problematic because they contain an overt value judgment. What does “advanced” mean?
What if it’s actually more “advanced” to be honest about who we are, especially about sexuality? I liked this director’s portrayal of sex on the screen, and I find it fascinating that it was ostensibly because these two figures were trolls — “canine-like” — that the sex could be as raw as it was. Did the fact that these figures are not human give the director permission or courage to make the lovemaking primal?
Vocabulary.com tells us that “primus,” the Latin root of primal, means “first” and defines primal as “something that’s essential or basic, like the primal urge to protect yourself and your family from harm. If your friend talks about his primal self, he means the most basic, important part of who he is.”
The most basic, important part of who we are.
What does this say about “society”? Society exists to tame our most basic, important parts so that we can live together in relative harmony. Of course, “society” has also committed terrible acts in its name. War, genocide, racism — all have been permitted, even encouraged, by “polite” society.
Sex is powerful. It can knock us off our feet. It can cause havoc in communities. Lust, longing, and desire are of course famous for changing the trajectory of history. With no boundaries, sex can become a dangerous and destructive force. It can, and does every day, rip families apart when, for example, couples stray outside the bounds of their commitments to one another.
But perhaps this very power should be celebrated. Maybe if we weren’t so busy repressing it, it would be normalized and less destructive.
My point is, sex shouldn’t be polite. Raised Catholic by a mother that feared and loathed anything relating to the physical, I cannot stand polite, tentative lovers. I can’t appear to “want” sex more than a man because that would make me…wanton. Something terrible indeed. When faced with a timid lover, then, I immediately mirror him, in a way that is decidedly unhealthy in the bedroom. It’s like a race to the bottom. Who can be more polite, more timid, more subdued? This kills desire quick.
Raw, unabashed sex is another story. Open-mouthed, “almost canine” kissing, according to one reviewer of the film is strong, primal, unabashed. A hand to the throat. Teeth to the neck. This is not “rough” sex. It’s not about pain. It does not instill fear of any kind. It’s about matching desire to desire. It’s honoring desire that won’t be checked. It’s a commitment by both parties that they will be honest and forthright. They will not hang back. They will be responsive. They will jump into that river, no holds barred.
In “Border,” the actors are on the surface very ugly (they are trolls and don’t correspond to human definitions of attractiveness). Yet, despite, or perhaps because of this, they are not afraid to make themselves even uglier in sex. They growl. They bare their teeth. The lock their mouths onto one another. They approach each other, warily yet inexorably, circling like boxers in the ring.
And they care not one iota how they look doing it. That was so far beside the point as to be on another planet. In another realm. They communicated their desire forthrightly with immediacy and freshness. In Border, sex is depicted as freedom and a dedication to feeling all that is possible in a moment of intimacy, with no overlays of guilt, shame, or fear. It expresses a commitment to honoring the sexual drive, the well-spring of creation.