Dutch filmmaker Alex van Warmerdam has done something amazing with his 2013 Cannes hit Borgman – he’s struck me almost completely silent. Assembling a cautionary tale of true evil’s many charismatic forms, no 2014 watch has personally unearthed such conflicting reactions thus far, and this is coming from a horror lover who adores filmmakers who can sneakily establish a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Borgman represents broody, unnerving filmmaking, that fact remains undeniable, but does Warmerdam’s haunting suburban nightmare possess enough sense to remain watchable? As Van Warmerdam expresses a darker, more dangerous Michel Gondry style, Borgman becomes something of an art-house horror film aided by perception, not understanding – a strong stylistic choice, but one that might thin out hordes of viewers.
Jan Bijvoet plays the enigmatic vagrant Camiel Borgman, a homeless man forced from his underground community by men with shotguns and other weapons. We don’t know why Borgman and his fellow hobos are driven above ground, but this is where Van Warmerdam’s story begins – with a dirty man simply looking for a shower. After being denied by wealthy homes, Borgman sets his sights on an upper class family with what appears to be the perfect life. After Richard (Jeroen Perceval) beats Borgman and turns him away, Marina (Hadewych Minis) sneakily helps the drifter behind her husband’s back, allowing their lives to be invaded by the unexpected guest. As time passes, we begin to suspect Borgman’s motivations aren’t simply food and shelter – which becomes even more obvious when the bodies start to pile up.
Borgman isn’t your typical serial killer or slasher fare. Instead, it’s a series of unfortunate events that play out like a grim fairytale. Our titular character leaps from his underground home, asks random people for a quick bath, picks an unsuspecting family to torment, and leaves when he sees fit – that’s all the explanation Van Warmerdam offers, and yet that lack of information ends up being perversely hypnotizing. We meet Borgman living life as a modern day mole-man, devoid of all technology except a cell phone (bills can be mailed to underground hideaways?), and this is where Van Warmerdam asserts his darkly comedic, brashly fantastical storytelling methods. There’s never another mentioning of Borgman’s dirty past-life, which only enhances the mystifying legend of Borgman, a character who grows into an iconic deviant simply by avoiding factual classification.
While Van Warmerdam’s unflinching filmmaking heightens Camiel Borgman’s nefarious motives, it’s actor Jan Bijvoet’s absolutely brilliant performance that plays into our morbid curiosity. More forgettable characters wouldn’t demand such attention considering how trivial and absurd Borgman tends to be, yet Bijvoet’s cunning personality turns Borgman into a specimen begging dissection. Sly as a fox and slick as the most persuasive salesman, Borgman transforms from an Earth-covered urchin into a dapper madman right before our eyes – our horrified, bewildered eyes. Borgman‘s enchanting nature poses many questions and establishes a clear uncertainty in actions, and we find ourselves watching Van Warmerdam’s obscure dreamscape to discover Borgman’s next estranged move – a rare case where anticipating awaiting “shocks” outweighs our thirst for explanation.
Hadewych Minis plays a mother/wife who becomes sympathetic to Borgman’s situation initially, an equally rich complexity, but her family struggles aren’t aided by Van Warmerdam’s simplistic delivery – unlike Borgman’s seductive genius. While having nightmares about her husband Richard brutalizing and defiling her, she takes her imaginary rage out in real life, attacking the poor man while still in his deep slumber. Marina depicts that same kind of intrigued curiosity already engulfing our transfixed eyes, but her equally distraught actions bring upon mounting strangeness that slowly becomes a tad bit distracting instead of artistically charged. Borgman’s concentrated debauchery reveals a calculated nature as time rolls on, but Marina’s increasingly irrational actions can’t be accepted like Borgman’s slow, seedy assault.
Borgman reminds me of ambitious projects like Holy Motors and Delicatessen, lavish foreign productions expressing unique storytelling that refuse to be confined by scripting rules that demand no detail be presented without reasoning. Van Warmerdam’s latest may not be as visually striking as those aforementioned pieces, displayed by the boxy grey house Borgman becomes fixated by, but our director draws many comparisons to absurdist Quentin Dupieux – albeit in a more collected, complete way. Borgman reaches a finite ending. Van Warmerdam just decides to adventure down the path least followed and what he finds is a mixture of independent playwriting, murderous misfits, a destruction of what we perceive as societal perfection, and the many faces of pure evil.
Borgman is an abstract experiment that fits my personal definition of horror, but some might argue that commanding tones of dark humor and dramatic unfolding overtake what little “horror” visually exists. Personally, I believe Van Warmerdam’s story was forged in the very bowels of hell, warning of demons hiding in plain sight. Is that not true, natural horror? Borgman challenges audiences to decipher who truly becomes a villain here, whether it be Borgman’s unhatched plan or Marina’s ill-fated wishes, but perception becomes Van Warmerdam’s biggest ally in a war against mainstream ideology.
Unfortunately, overthinking will also ruin Borgman for those who are lost without linear storytelling, but Van Warmerdam panders to no one. Such is life for the bold, the risky, and the free.