Movie Review: Borgman (2014)


Seen: On our projector set-up at home.

A trio of unkempt men living in hidden underground rooms in the forest are forced to flee when a gang of armed men (including a priest) raid their home. Their leader, Camiel (Jan Bijvoet), runs to a large, isolated estate and begs its owner–self-interested businessman Richard (Jeroen Perceval)–to allow him to use their shower. He refuses, and soon physically beats Camiel when he claims to have known Richard’s wife, Marina (Hadewych Minis). She takes pity on him and secretly invites him to use their bathroom, going so far as to make him dinner and agreeing to put him up in their guest house for a few nights as long as he keeps himself hidden. He soon ingratiates himself into her and her young children’s lives, and facilitates the dissolution of her marriage by sending her nightmares about Richard. Several friends join him at the house and things soon spiral out into weirder and weirder territory.

Borgman is the type of film during which I was never quite sure what was going on, but I was always utterly captivated. Writer/director/co-star (and poster designer) Alex van Warmerdam throws his audience into the action immediately, opening with a wordless hunt through the woods as three unidentified armed men tear through the protagonists’ underground homes. These men are never seen again, and their violent raid is never mentioned nor given reason. Camiel and his friends are immediately sympathetic because to our eyes they are victims, perhaps persecuted for living an alternative lifestyle. As the story progresses we come to realize the manipulative, vaguely paranormal power Camiel exerts over Marina and her family, and the brutal lengths he will go to for whatever his mysterious goal may be. The film rests in a cloud of uncertainty and ambiguity but the answer always feels like it’s lying just out of reach, perhaps just out of frame, so that as a viewer I was set on seeing things through and perhaps figuring things out. At times it’s almost intoxicatingly obtuse.

Of course, this isn’t just some hodge-podge of random scenes, there is narrative and character development and theme. This movie hates rich people, for example, and even though Camiel is shown to be fairly ruthless I couldn’t help but root for him since his target (the abusive, possessive, materialistic Richard) is so terrible. There is also a kind of mythology established, whether completely new or drawing from Dutch tradition I couldn’t say, but I did find it fascinating. Camiel sends dreams to Marina, has some kind of supernatural hold on the people around him, he and his friends can apparently turn into dogs (?), they all sport mysterious scars on their backs, and they can hypnotize/brainwash young people. They fluidly change identities and mercilessly murder and manipulate, but their actions are more interesting than dastardly. With unreadable motivations and impressive efficiency, Camiel and his followers bring a wonderful level of weirdness to this idyllic modern home and its unsuspecting inhabitants.

Van Warmerdam crafts this intriguing oddity superbly, with pitch-perfect camerawork and a gorgeous, deep color palette. Shots move throughout the large, stylized household with thoughtful tension, revealing and hiding in equal amounts. While the family feels real enough, it’s easy to assume the events of the film take place in a dream, given the slightly surreal tinge falling over every scene. The sets are too stagey, the action too contained, the characters too nestled in their own performances: the divide between real and unreal is inescapably blurred and even that is commented upon in a conceptual performance shown just before the climax. But the occasional intrusion of the world outside the main family’s home reminds us that this is taking place in the realm of reality (at least that of the film) and the surprisingly matter-of-fact ending jolts us out of the strange hold Camiel and his story had on us. Imaginative, unpredictable, and wholly singular, Borgman is not a film I’m likely to forget.


Pair This Movie With: Who the fuck knows. Lots of people compare this to Dogtooth, which I still haven’t seen (I know), so I guess that.

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