You want to watch Alex van Warmerdam’s Borgman, you just don’t know it yet. Even now, while your instincts tell you to resist its charms, a small part of you knows it’s already too late. Why struggle against it when it feels so good, so right, to simply give in?
The power of persuasion is at the heart of Borgman and its title character (Jan Bijvoet) even if its ultimate resolution leaves viewers with more questions than answers. The first Dutch film to compete at Cannes in nearly 40 years, Borgman boasts an entrancing visual style coupled with haunting performances and a brand of black humor befitting the frozen plains of Fargo. While the film’s payoff unfortunately comes up a bit short of its promise, it remains a hypnotic journey worthy of contemplation well after it’s over. Hit the jump for my Borgman review.
“And they descended upon the Earth to strengthen their ranks.” With this quote, Borgman opens. It’s as enigmatic as it is all-encompassing, as the plot both expands from this starting point and is completely enveloped by it. Who are they? From where do they descend? What conflict is being waged that requires strengthening of their ranks? Most of these questions are left up to viewers to debate as no definitive answers are given, making Borgman a frustrating yet compelling watch.
The first five minutes of the film introduce us to the title character, though we’re not actually aware of this fact until much later in the first act. Van Warmerdam instead introduces a trio of throwaway characters through a series of dialogue-free snippets: a hunting dog barks while its master holsters his gun in a belt, a priest performs the Eucharist for himself before an altar boy hands him a hunting shotgun, a youth sporting a severe haircut sharpens the business end of a pike. The three men, seemingly disparate, unite for a purposeful trek into the woods. Their quarry? A disheveled vagrant hiding out in a spacious bunker carved into the forest floor and camouflaged by a rather rickety roof of fallen leaves and entwined sticks. Aided by some sense of keen prescience, the man is able to elude his hunters (even as the shotgun-wielding priest is mere steps away from him) and manages to warn his fellow bunker-dwellers hiding beneath the foliage in their own meager dwellings. This luck-touched man is Borgman.
And so we’re introduced to the odd nature of Borgman the man, and Borgman the film. A hint of the supernatural has already coursed its way into the narrative, with one of the hunters being a man of the cloth, and the forest-dwelling men possibly taking on aspects of fairyfolk or even vampires. And yet we see Borgman use a cellphone, the modern convenience of modern conveniences, to warn his fellows, thus casting doubt on their otherworldly powers. It’s this playfulness with both the audience and the characters within the film that continues throughout its duration, leading us to believe one thing while counteracting that assumption with its polar opposite in the very next frame.
Borgman, evicted from his humble yet comfortable dwelling, now seeks finer accommodations, and if we’re to assume he’s the subject of the opening quote, to also replenish his ranks. He does so by charming his way into the architecturally modern home of an upper-class nuclear family. “Charm” is perhaps too weak a word here. Borgman possesses an ability to not only instinctively know which buttons to press to get a desired short-term result, but also the power to influence dreams and persuade stark changes in a given subject’s personality over time. There are dark forces at work here, though whether Borgman and his ilk are at the mercy of them or simply using them as tools to achieve their desires remains open for debate.
While the plot grows more complex and unpredictable as Borgman and his cohorts wheedle their way into the family’s most intimate moments, the visual style keeps pace and maintains the hypnotic pall cast over the viewers. Two starved hunting dogs stalk through the house while avoiding detection and responding to Borgman’s orders; his fixers, a mentor hitwoman and her apprentice, dispatch nuisances and dispose of their bodies by encasing their heads in buckets of cement and depositing them at the bottom of a lake; Borgman himself squats naked over the wife while she sleeps in order to influence her dreams and drive her away from her abusive husband. Van Warmerdam accomplishes just enough in his exposition to keep a throughline, but the real story is told visually. From ballerina dancers clad in black, to a dead-eyed child dispatching a fallen stranger with a heavy stone to the head, to a placid pond turned into a chthonic stomping ground for the film’s final act, Borgman’s true tale is hidden somewhere between the lines of dialogue and cuts from scene to scene.
And yet it’s not quite as tight as it all could have been. The threat posed by the hunters in the opener is never revisited. If we’re to believe Borgman is strengthening his ranks, it would have been a stronger play to have one of them actually be captured or even killed by the hunters themselves. The absence of this threat makes Borgman’s hold over the family absolute and the result is a drop in dramatic tension. Still at the end of the day, Borgman’s true nature – and the nature of evil – is a question worthy of much thought and discussion, which is more than you can ask of most film’s today. As I watched Borgman, I was reminded of a 2007 novel from Keith Donohue titled “The Stolen Child.” Inspired by the William Butler Yeats poem of he same name, it follows a group of beings known as changelings, creatures that kidnap children and exchange them with doppelgangers in order to replenish their ranks. The novel raised questions of our true nature and whether evil is inherent to our species, or rather is imposed on us by an external influence. Borgman asks similar questions wrapped up in an enchanting visual style, and leaves the answers up for interpretation to viewers discussing the film after hours … and after double-checking the locks on their doors.