The newest feature from Dutch filmmaker Alex van Warmerdam entitled Borgman is at once a dark fairy tale, a demented home invasion thriller, a dissection of class struggle, and a meditation on the age-old conflict of good vs. evil, all fused together within a surreal nightmare of elaborate metaphors and peppered with an unexpected dose of black comedy. The resulting experience will be difficult or impossible to ever fully understand in an objective way, thanks to van Warmerdam’s precise and highly ambiguous storytelling voice which leaves intentional gaps in our understanding of the events as they unfold. Despite its enigmatic nature however, the experience of watching the film invariably leaves a deep impression on us as viewers, lingering after the story has ended and forcing us to view the characters and events in a more symbolic way in order to extract meaning from them. There is, without a doubt, much more to Borgman than the straight-forward home invasion plot that exists as the foundation of the story, with vast supernatural undertones that are often only briefly alluded to, yet remain crucial to the film’s unique message and concept.
The film opens as a small group of armed men and a priest hunt through the woods in search of a vagrant, Camiel Borgman (Jan Bijvoet), who is found sleeping in a small underground den. Camiel manages to escape just in time, warning his friends Ludwig (Alex van Warmerdam) and Pascal (Tom Dewispelaere) of the search party before venturing out of the woods and into an upper-class neighbourhood. He quickly stumbles upon a house that piques his interest, containing a wealthy family of five and an enormous garden. Camiel approaches the front door and speaks to the husband/father Richard (Jeroen Perceval), who rejects his piteous requests to have a bath in their house. Camiel is persistent and manipulative to the point of aggravating Richard, who viscously beats the man and leaves him in a heap on the front lawn. Torn with grief and guilt for her husband’s actions, Marina (Hadewych Minis) invites Camiel into their home to recuperate for a few days, unbeknownst to her husband. Things quickly begin to unravel soon after as Camiel begins infiltrating the lives of everyone in the family, turning Richard and Marina against each other to devastating results, and introducing strangers into their home with mysterious and frightening intentions…
Borgman is a film that operates on a higher psychological level than your average horror film, and really should not be taken entirely as a literal or realistic story. While it does initially appear grounded in realism and set in the modern world, a handful of supernatural elements and abilities are hinted at or suggested as the plot progresses, including dream manipulation, the capacity to exert a type of hypnotic control (physical or emotional) over a subject, and even possibly to shapeshift into non-human forms. Many of these elements become far more relevant when considering potential connections to mythological figures, such as the demonic Alp creature from German folklore, or the angelic figure of Camael from Christian and Jewish religious mythology, who is most obviously referenced by the title character’s first name and his connection to the garden. When read in parallel with these texts – and likely several others I didn’t pick up on – Borgman proves to be much more than initially meets the eye, revealing a larger metaphysical story with many complex themes that are hidden beneath the surface.
But all of that aside, the acting here is also top notch, with a standout performance by leading man Jan Bijvoet as well as a fantastic supporting role for Hadewych Minis, who is fearless as the emotionally distressed Marina. The rest of Camiel’s evil crew were all great and perfectly creepy as well, with van Warmerdam himself popping up to often comedic effect in the role of Ludwig. The writer/director proves to be even better behind the lens however, executing an extremely tight and well-developed a narrative style that remains one step ahead of the viewer at all times, even if it leaves an excessive number of questions unanswered. Indeed, this may be the film’s one glaring flaw when considering its accessibility to wider audiences, as many viewers are bound to leave the theatre scratching their heads and wondering about the significance of several minor story points which are never fully explained. Alternately, those who do not buy into the supernatural elements may find some characters’ motivations to come across as senseless or unjustified. Still, the experience of the film as a whole transcends these notions – the sum proves greater than its parts – and I would argue that the whole thing does in fact work together to merge into a sort of surreal fever dream that is meant to play with our minds, to be discussed, and to leave us filling in the blanks for days to come.
4 / 5 S T A R S
Borgman is currently screening at The Royal in Toronto until July 9th. Showtimes available here.