Directed By: Alex van Warmerdam
Written by: Alex van Warmerdam
Starring: Jan Bijvoet (Camiel Borgman), Hadewych Minis (Marina), Jeroen Perceval (Richard), Alex van Warmerdam (Ludwig), Tom Dewispelaere (Pascal), Sara Hjort Ditlevsen (Stine), Elve Lijbaart (Isolde), Dirkje van der Pijl (Rebecca), Pieter-Bas de Waard (Leo), Eva van de Wijdeven (Ilonka), Annet Malherbe (Brenda), Gene Bervoets (Gardener), Mike Weerts (Arthur Stornebrink), Pierre Bokma (Priest), Benjamin Boe Rasmussen (Man with Dog), Reinout Scholten van Aschat (Man #2), Ariane Schluter (Gardener's Wife).
Looking back over Borgman, I am reminded of Howard Hawks’ rule for making a great movie – three great scenes, no bad ones. Borgman does the more difficult of these two things – it contains not a single bad scene, not a single scene that doesn’t work. And yet, I’m not sure if the film has even one truly great scene. It is a film that builds slowly, that draws you into its mysteries, not unlike a Michael Haneke film. And yet, when the movie is over, I’m not sure the whole thing adds up to anything more than an elaborate tease on the part of writer-director Alex van Warmerdam. I already mentioned Haneke, and the film of his this most resembles is Funny Games (either version) – but for better or for worse, Funny Games has a point, and builds to something. Borgman doesn’t really do that. It is ambiguous to the point of opaqueness. It is a fascinating film, brilliantly directed and acted, and one that has haunted me since I have seen it. Perhaps it doesn’t need to add up to something.
The film opens with a fascinating scene, where three men – two farmers and a shotgun wielding priest – head out into the woods, and start digging. This is when we meet Camiel Borgman (Jan Bijovet) – who is literally living in an underground bunker – he escapes, and then warns a number of other underground dwellers. Borgman is a big, imposing figure with wild hair, and a wilder beard. He heads into the suburbs, and starts knocking on doors with a simple request for a bath. He gets nowhere fast – and then at one house he meets Richard (Jereon Perceval) who doesn’t just say no, but beats Borgman rather brutally. Feeling guilty, Richard’s wife Marina (Hadewych Minis) catches up with Borgman, and not only offers him a bath, but also a place to stay – a small guest house on their vast property which is little more than a shed. All she asks is that Borgman stay in that shack, and not talk with her family – which of course, he cannot do. It isn’t long before he has started to have some sort of mind control over not just Marina, but the couple’s three children, and the beautiful young nanny Stine (Sara Hjort Ditlevsen) – and then he brings along his friends. After “disposing” of the gardener, Borgman shows back up – now clean shaven – and Richard, who does not recognize him, hires him to be the new gardener. This allows Borgman and his friends to truly start exacting their plan.
But what precisely is their plan, and what is their ultimate endgame? Even after watching the film, I’, still not sure I could explain it to you. There is an element of class warfare at play here – Richard and Marina are rich, have a stylish, modernist house – he works as some sort of television executive. By contrast, Borgman and his cohorts are poor and homeless. Are they really just exacting revenge on the materialistic society that they have rejected, and in turn have rejected them? But what about the quote that opens the film “And they descended upon the earth to strengthen their ranks”, which sounds like something from the bible, but as far as I can tell, isn’t actually. This would imply some sort of religious reading to the film – that Borgman and his cohorts are some sort of angels, descending upon the earth – but then again, they quite literally rise up from the ground at the beginning of the film- they do not descend at all. And the fact that van Warmerdam simply made up the quote, instead of finding an actual bible quote (which he most definitely could have) – makes me once again think that he doesn’t really have a greater purpose than to screw with the audience.
If that is his purpose, it must be said that he accomplishes it expertly. Part of the reason is that the two lead performances are so good. Bijovet is excellent as Borgman – who we are immediately uneasy about, although he doesn’t really do anything menacing for a while. When he starts slowly upping the ante, he maintains the same calm, methodical demeanor. He seems to have no passion about anything at all – even as he starts to control the rest of the family. Minis is great as Marina as well, who is slowly turned against her own family to the point where she’s willing to do monstrous things – but it never seems outlandish.
Borgman is a haunting film – it shows van Warmerdam with complete and total control over the medium, as he slowly ratchets up the suspense and deepens the mysteries of the film. Does he ever answer the questions he raises? No – not really. I’m not even sure he knows what the hell Borgman actually means. But it’s a strange, surreal, disturbing journey to take. Borgman doesn’t have to mean anything to haunt you.