Borgman review

A mysterious vagrant disrupts an upper middle class Dutch family in this supremely unsettling allegory.

The Dutch entry for Best Foreign Language Film for last year’s Academy Awards (it did not make the final five, sadly), Borgman is one of those films that is difficult to classify. Is it horror? Satire? Political allegory? Surreal mindfuck? Director Alex van Warmerdam’s feature is all of the above, and most importantly, it is supremely eerie and unsettling, and does not spoonfeed the viewer a single thing — by the time this harrowing film has finished, a good number of its questions remain unanswered, making it all the more disturbing.

Our first meeting with Camiel Borgman (embodied with remarkable restraint by Jan Bijvoet) is instantly bizarre and sets the tone for the rest of the film. He and two other men named Ludwig (played by the director) and Pascal (Tom Dewispelaere) are living in underground warrens in the woods in a rural stretch of Holland, but are forced to evacuate when three nearby residents — including a farmer and, tellingly, a priest — come armed with guns to evict them. Their reasons are never elaborated upon, but it is clear that they want the men out of the area or worse.

The unkempt, thickly bearded Borgman flees through the forest and comes upon the palatial suburban home of affluent TV producer Richard (Jeroen Perceval) and his wife Marina (Hadewych Minis). His request for a bath turned down by Richard, Borgman claims to know Marina (which she denies), prompting a raging Richard to beat him half to death. Taking pity, Marina allows Borgman to stay secretly in their guest house, without Richard’s knowledge, setting off a chain of events that soon envelops Richard, Marina, their three small children, their nanny and others around them in a miasma of evil that works its way mundanely into the home.

Before long, a now clean-shaven Borgman manipulates events (which involves the dumping of three bodies, their heads encased in cement, in a lake) so that he can reintroduce himself to Richard — who doesn’t recognize him — as a landscaper hired to reshape their backyard. Ludwig and Pascal soon reappear, and the three men ensconce themselves in the guest quarters as they begin their work (which seems to accomplish nothing but the destruction of the grounds) and also call in two equally enigmatic women to help with a number of more sordid and sinister tasks. Soon, Borgman is not only preying on Richard’s insecurities and Marina’s fears, but working his way into the minds of the children as well.

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I would certainly classify Borgman as a horror film. It sets and maintains a creepy, disquieting sense of dread from the start and many occurrences (most notably the startling scenes involving a naked Borgman crouching over a sleeping Marina) are unexplainable in rational terms. The opening scene, in which Borgman and his associates literally rise out of the ground like reanimated corpses, establishes them as corrupted, vampiric beings of some sort, at least in a metaphorical sense. But their motivations for preying on this particular family are never explained, and Borgman himself is a blank slate — which makes his evil that much more frightening.

The lack of any concrete explanation for the activities of Borgman and his allies leads us to consider the film in different terms. Is it an allegory for the destruction of the middle class by the forces of poverty and economic distress? (The status of Richard’s job looms large over the course of the story.) Or — more disturbingly, given the recent rise of a new far right political movement in Western Europe — is it a metaphor for many European countries’ alarm over what they see as a rising tide of immigrants pouring into their homes and taking over?

Warmerdam, very much in the tradition of Michael Haneke and David Lynch, isn’t saying, and the film is all the better for it. It is telling that Marina invites Borgman into the house: this goes back to ancient European folktales in which the devil must be invited inside to work his evil, for one thing. But Marina herself is not the placid homemaker and artist she appears to be on the surface — in one scene she confesses to Richard her guilt over their family’s well-off status, insisting that a punishment of some kind is imminent and even deserved. Is Borgman a manifestation of the paranoia that can grip the prosperous and make them even more fearful of losing it all? Does some part of Marina want to destroy everything she and Richard have?

Again, the filmmaker doesn’t provide any rationale. But what he does provide is a steady series of escalating events, some hideous and some unspeakably funny (yes, parts of Borgman play as very black comedy), that get stranger and more malevolent as the family’s inevitable disintegration takes hold. Warmerdarm stages it all calmly, with minimal scoring and beautiful cinematography (by Tom Erisman) that accentuates the tranquil setting for all this depravity. The cast is uniformly excellent as well, bringing an initial realism to the proceedings that makes the later descent into nightmare more believable.

Borgman is not for everyone, and on the surface much of its plot might not make a lot of sense to more casual viewers. But it leaves you shaken and certainly thinking, and stands out for me as one of the best European horror films I’ve seen in a while (it’s also not filled with gore like, say, a lot of the more recent French offerings). I just might not want to watch it again for a long time.

Borgman is out in limited release.

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4.5 out of 5