If invited into your conscious, Borgman makes the means so damn beguiling, the ends don't hold interest.
The unpredictable mechanics of evil have rarely been as captivating as they are in Alex Van Warmerdam’s Borgman. Premiering last year at Cannes, our very own Dustin Jansick saw it during his coverage of the festival (read his initial thoughts here) and was, unsurprisingly, compelled by its strangeness. Having finally seen public release earlier this month in the U.S. from Drafthouse Films, Borgman will be welcomed onto Canadian soil to tease, lure, and most-likely frustrate the hell out of Canadian audiences on July 4th. Populating the camp of frustrated moviegoers will be those who need an end to the means in their narratives, and a purpose to guide them through the mystery. But one of the many things Borgman does so well, if you invite it into your conscious, is make the means so damn beguiling that you stop caring about the ends half-way through the film.
Van Warmerdam wastes absolutely no time in kick starting the action. A posse of rural hunters, led by a priest, gather and go into the forest. They come upon a hollow patch of earth and start stabbing it with a spear. This is the hideout of Camiel Borgman (Jan Bijvoet), who has made something of a cozy nest for himself, and who isn’t in the least bit surprised that he is being hunted. He gathers his things, quickly disappears through a dug out tunnel, and starts alerting his fellow underground dwellers Pascale (Tom Dewispelaere) and Ludwig (Van Warmerdam) to the dangers.
Camiel finds himself in a middle-to-upper class suburban neighborhood and starts going door-to-door, asking for a bath because he looks (and probably smells) like he’s been living underground for weeks. After being turned down at the first home, he tries the next, which belongs to Richard (Jeroen Perceval) and Marina (Hadewych Minis), a well-to-do couple who have three well-behaved children and a well-mannered nanny to take care of them. Richard answers the door and politely declines entry, but starts to get irritated when the vagabond doesn’t seem to get the message and, what’s more, claims to know Marina (although he calls her Maria and remembers her as a nurse.) Not being able to control himself, Richard beats Camiel up and violently shoves Marina back into the house.
We’re not even 15 minutes into the film here, and Van Warmerdam has commanded complete attention. The wordless preparations for the hunt, the priest, the underground hideouts, the escape, the confrontation between Richard and Camiel, and Camiel’s memory of Marina as Maria the nurse are balanced with the bizarre comedic effects of seeing a spear puncture eggs, a hairy Bijvoet nonchalantly asking for baths, and the reactions of Ludwig and Pascale who look like the most ordinary of fellows if it wasn’t for them sleeping under the ground. This is how Borgman builds the insatiable desire to make you want to know what happens next, and it only grows from there as the film starts to contort into its dark and twisted narrative. When Richard goes to work, Camiel finds a way to enter the house unsuspected, but Marina finds him and allows him the bath he’s been wanting. There is something that persuades her to help this man out, and she allows him to rest for a few days in their nearby guesthouse. As Marina is slowly drawn to Camiel, she starts to have nightmares about her husband’s violence, and just like that her well-to-do facade has cracked open to invite a mysterious presence, which will slowly upend her whole way of life.
In his Director statement during last year’s Cannes, Van Warmerdam says he wanted to “descend into the unknown, dark part of my imagination and see what would be found there.” Indeed, if you can point to one thing that makes the film such an alluring piece of cinema is its originality. Written by the director, Borgman has splashes of influence from Dutch folklore, Descartes’ concept of the evil genius, and Machiavellian distinctions of truth and power, but it is essentially its own beast. The tension simmers ever loudly as buckets of cement, wandering Great Danes, mysterious scars, and Marina’s powerless submissions are all part of the puzzle, enticing us further and further into the nightmarish rabbit hole of Borgman’s world. What stops Borgman from reaching the kind of cinematic euphoria its two acts build toward, is that after the final act, it does inevitably leave you wanting. The ends may not matter, but with a muddled purpose the film bites off more than it can chew by the time it’s all over.
Nevertheless, supremely crafted suspense like this doesn’t emerge very often. The comparisons to David Lynch, Michael Haneke and Yorgos Lanthimos are well met. I’ll throw another one in the mix as well; Lars Von Trier. Van Warmerdam’s ability to disturb the natural order of things in Borgman recall edge-of-the-seat intrigue in films like Antichrist, except that Borgman’s aesthetics are much more sunny, clean, and polished, making the subject-matter that much more appealing. With commanding performances from Bijvoet, Minis and Perceval, a structure that is an exemplary study in economic pacing, and a story that has all the appeal of seductive myths, Borgman will end up as one of the most original and captivating dark stories to emerge this year.