An unholy presence arrives, and never leaves, in Alex van Warmerdam's magnificent 'Borgman'
Borgman Drafthouse Films
Director: Alex van Warmerdam
Screenplay: Alex van Warmerdam
Starring: Jan Bijvoet, Hadewych Minis, Jeroen Perceval, Sara Hjort Ditlevsen, Elve Lijbaart and Alex van Warmerdam
Not rated / 1 hour, 53 minutes
Now playing in limited release
(out of four)
How calm and unassuming, the malevolence of Borgman. Its calmness - or rather, his calmness, the titular enigma called Camiel Borgman (Jan Bijvoet) - is precisely what allows it to set in its roots so deep, attaching itself like an existential parasite, ultimately consuming everything and everyone under its spell.
Dutch filmmaker Alex van Warmerdam's masterful black comedy behaves in the fashion of its central character, burrowing under our skin incrementally and insidiously as we only gradually grasp what is taking place - and even then, we're only partially in on the secret. Borgman and his equally mysterious cohorts, and whatever evil they represent, never feel the need to explain themselves. They are what they are.
When we first meet the man, he is living in a makeshift home underground in the middle of the woods, its entrance completely covered by dirt and leaves. He seems to be part of a sort of network of transients doing the same, living out of the way of civilization but within spitting distance of the nearest town and its surrounding suburbs. But we know, from the start, that Camiel has pissed off the locals. For what reason, we don't know. (Later events will give us more of a clue.)
A group of three men - a priest, a hunter and a blacksmith - are coming after him, and they're armed. He takes off just before they catch him, warns his fellow vagrants living deeper in the woods, and eventually sets his sights on a wealthy-looking house at the edge of the forest. He rings the doorbell and asks, simply, for a bath. The man of the house, Richard (Jeroen Perceval), refuses - and isn't particularly kind about it. Borgman retorts by insisting that he knows Richard's wife, and convincingly tells an elaborate backstory about her, incurring Richard's violent wrath in the process*.
* I believe this scene is one of the reasons many have compared Borgman to Michael Haneke (though van Warmerdam is much funnier than Haneke has ever been), particularly his Funny Games films - and there are superficial similarities there, both in the basic home intrusion set-up and the affable, unassuming way the sinister presence is introduced. I always interpreted the eggs sequence in Funny Games as a sort of test for the bourgeois wife - that if she contentedly replaced the eggs each time, she would pass the test and her family would never have been terrorized. Similarly, Borgman asking this upper-class family for a bath seems like a test of his own - and Richard fails spectacularly.
The hilarious way this scene plays out is one of the key tone-setters for the film, as Bijvoet's deadpan manner never wavers even as the husband - oblivious to the absurdity of the moment - gets more and more angry. The wife, meanwhile, takes pity on him, and when Richard leaves for the evening, she offers Borgman a bath and a meal, and allows him to stay the night in their guest house - so long as he stays out of sight.
This, it seems, is all the invitation he needs to slowly, alarmingly impose himself on this family's lives. One night in the guest house turns into another, turns into another, always offering cordial and convincing reasons for Marina (Hadewych Minis) to allow him to stay.
After a few days, gone are the unkempt beard and the long hair. He's practically unrecognizable, which comes in handy when he murders the family's gardener and then applies to replace him. Richard doesn't recognize this polite and clean-shaven man, and he gets the job easily.
That, of course, is only the start of Borgman's ultimate plan. He smoothly embeds himself into all of their lives - Marina catches him in her young daughter's room one night, simply reading her a bedtime story; later, we see him, naked, standing over the husband and wife as they lay sleeping; he even finds himself invading their dreams. He transforms himself from mere visitor to an omnipresent figure as if it were a birthright.
With meticulous brilliance, van Warmerdam creates a sense of abstract unease that seems to hover over the family - particularly Marina, who after all is the one who invited this man into their lives in the first place - like some kind of evil spirit. What begins as a strange deadpan comedy slowly shifts into surreal horror, with its looming sense of dread threatening to become unbearable, if van Warmerdam's images and scenarios so consistently, and darkly, funny. His earthy, muted color palette withholds judgment, while so many of his compositions - often in medium or wide shots - matter-of-factly underscore their unnerving comedic value. Consider the underwater shot of two upside-down corpses - their heads buried in buckets to weigh them down - both positioned on the far left, just as they're joined by a third similarly adorned body slowly sinking to the bottom of the lakebed on the right side of the frame.
Then there are the most overtly sinister moments late in the film, presented with a clinical deadpan gaze. (Some of those moments reminded me of the cold, all-business choreography of that memorable professional murder sequence from Michael Clayton.)
Brought to life by Bijvoet's unforgettable performance, this Borgman becomes not so much a character but an overwhelming presence - an elemental force of nature that calmly seizes control of this wealthy family's collective soul. And those that can't be controlled - well, just see what happened to the gardener. Van Warmerdam, who also wrote the script, peppers the film with ambiguous (and in some cases terrifying) details that only hint at a larger evil that Borgman and his accomplices represent. Observing the scrupulous way they go about their business is as unsettling as it is amusing, in its specifically absurdist way. A quasi-religious fable, a sly comedy of manners and an existential nightmare in one, Borgman is an extraordinary achievement, a great and disturbing dark comedy whose mood alone is potent enough to slither its way into our subconscious.