Mind Control Double Feature #111: Listen! Do You Smell Something?

The nose. So-called avenue to the soul, portal to the heart, byway to the brain, without which whither the rose, wherefore the waffles, what wonder the woods? Imagine a face sans sniffer—tis but a skull! Though oft second-fiddled to the eyes, we ignore the nose at our peril. Would that we could scent coming quakes and tornados, smell out evil intentions, olfactorate the electorate! But, alas, though schnozzes sit front and center on every face, rare is the genius proboscis.

Rare, but not unheard of. Or, rather, not unsmelled of. In this week’s Mind Control Double Feature, we dive deep into nasal cavities of unusual mystery and subtlety. What lies within is certain to open your eyeballs to the potential of your nostrils.

Border (Gräns) (2018)

A small, strange Swedish film the less about which I reveal the better, winner of the Un Certain Regard at Cannes this year, Border has yet to open in the U.S., but when it does, you will need to both see and smell it in its entirety, as I was lucky enough to do at an early screening following which director Ali Abbasi and star Eva Melander spoke about its creation.

Eva Melander who, I did not at first realize, wore considerable makeup for her role as Tina, the best airport customs agent in the world. At first I thought, whoa, where did they find an actress with a face like this? Before thinking, hold on, there’s no way they found an actress with that face who’s this good an actress, that’s way too lucky. Or did they put out a casting call for oddest faces ever, and Melander turned up? Finally I said to myself, what are you, insane? That’s make-up, you dolt. Which it is.

But which goes to show the skill of the make-up artist and of the character’s conception. Tina’s face rests delicately on the edge of too grotesque to be real and mysterious but plausible glandular problem without going over it. According to Abbasi, to test their design, they sent Melander in her make-up out into the world pre-shooting to see what kind of reactions she got. Just as they hoped, people did the kind of double-takes they do when someone with a pronounced deformity walks by. They gape for a second, then quickly look away, so as not to rudely stare at this unfortunate—but certainly very real—soul.

Tina. Almost kind of normal looking.

Tina with the strange face is the world’s best customs agent because she can smell human emotions. She knows when someone is carrying something wrong in their baggage. No matter how small, no matter how well-hidden, she can sniff it out. She can even sniff out a tiny memory card full of child porn photos. Doing so brings her to the attention of the police, who ask that she help them track down the source of the photos.

Yet this plotline, while important later on, takes a backseat to more immediate concerns for Tina, namely the strange man who shows up at customs one day, Vore (Eero Milonoff). Vore’s face is weird in the exact same way as Tina’s. At which point she, and we too, realize there’s something more to this strange face and olfactory genius than we’d supposed.

Soulmates at the airport

The film is then concerned with Vore slowly but surely revealing to Tina her true self, and how Tina, who thought she’d found her tiny corner of this world in which to feel safe, reacts.

It’s a carefully-paced, lovingly shot film with just enough weirdness to keep one enthralled—a slow, strange burn—but one that’s stayed with me since seeing it.

Polyester (1981)

After sitting through a meditative, thoughtful, eerie Swedish sort-of-romance, you’re going to need something to wake you up. That something is John Waters’s first foray into what approaches, but is still comfortably far from, mainstream filmmaking, Polyester.

Another sort-of-romance, Polyster is the first and only movie to be filmed in Odorama, a technique described in a marvelously goofy prologue in a laboratory (which, I am led to understand, may not be included on home-viewing versions of the film? I caught it last week on 35mm, so I can’t be sure). Viewers, upon the film’s initial release, were given scratch-and-sniff Odorama cards, ten numbers on which corresponded to numbers that flashed on-screen during the film, indicating when to smell one’s card. Odors included pizza, model airplane glue, farts, roses, gasoline, and other olfactory pleasures.

Inspired by the likes of Douglas Sirk’s so-called “women’s pictures” of the ‘50s, Polyester tells the tale of unhappy suburban wife Francine Fishpaw (Divine) as she suffers her philandering, porn-theater-owner husband, her slutty teenage daughter, and her drug-addled, foot-fetishist teenage son, AKA the Baltimore Foot Stomper.

A mother and her foot-loving son

Odors play an important role in the film, and throughout, Francine shows off her unusually powerful sense of smell. Being a Jon Waters movie, the odors on display are not always the most delightful, but you won’t soon forget them.

Tab Hunter shows up in the latter half of the film as Divine’s dreamy love interest and potential savior, Todd Tomorrow, but Tomorrow has his own agenda, and in a movie where loveable pet dog Bonkers commits suicide by hanging, you can hardly expect everyone—or much of anyone, for that matter—to make it to the end alive.

Divine and Tab

Polyester is exactly as ridiculous as you’d expect from Waters. As its sits between his early, purposefully shocking low-budget forays into outrageousness and his mainstream career directing Hairspray and so on, it hits something of a sweet spot for him. Mostly, it’s hilarious.

And the smells! Polyester is without question the smelliest movie ever made, while Border is the smellingest. Do your nose a favor and watch these two back to back as soon as such a thing is possible.

3 responses on “Mind Control Double Feature #111: Listen! Do You Smell Something?

  1. probable spoiler alert
    I definitely need to see ‘Gräns’. It sounds like a dark, complex fairy tale, based on the magnificent older Scandinavian story traditions. I want desperately to see how the filmmakers have characterized the powers and biology of trolls; the idea of trolls as protagonists is incredibly alluring to someone like me, who has only ever seen them portrayed as villains. Thank you for the heads-up.

  2. I finally got to Gråns and sort of loved it and then got a little bored. Great performances and great ideas but I eventually started wondering what I was watching and why. It was surely novel but either felt like it went too shallow or too deep and I’m not sure which.

Yeah, well, you know, that's just, like, your opinion, man.

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