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Borgman

D: Alex van Warmerdam / 108m

Cast: Jan Bijvoet, Hadewych Minis, Jeroen Perceval, Sara Hjort Ditlevsen, Tom Dewispelaere, Alex van Warmerdam, Eva van de Wijdeven, Annet Malherbe, Elve Lijbaart, Dirkje van der Pijl, Pieter-Bas de Waard, Mike Weerts

In a forest, three men (including a priest) hunt for a man (Bijvoet) who lives in an underground hideout. The man escapes and alerts two others, Pascal (Dewispalaere), and Ludwig (van Warmerdam), to the presence of the three men. The man heads into a nearby town where he tries to find somewhere to have a bath and clean up. At the home of the van Schendel’s he’s rebuffed by the husband, Richard (Perceval), until he says that he knows his wife, Marina (Minis). Although she denies this, Richard becomes angry and attacks the man, knocking him to the ground. Later, after Richard has gone to work, Marina finds the man, who is called Camiel Borgman, hiding in their summer house. She lets him have a bath and some food and he persuades her to let him stay in the summer house for a few days, though Marina makes it clear he has to avoid being seen.

However, Borgman is soon finding reasons to be in the house, and is seen by her three children and their nanny, Stine (Ditlevsen). As problems in their marriage become apparent, Marina begins to lean towards Borgman for support and he stays for longer than planned. Borgman asks if their gardener is a friend or someone they’re close to; Marina says no. The next day, the gardener is shot with a poisoned dart by Borgman who takes him to his home and where he arranges for two of his associates, Olinka (van de Wijdeven) and Brenda (Malherbe) to meet him. The three of them kill the gardener and his wife and later dispose of the bodies.

Marina and Richard’s relationship continues to deteriorate, and when Borgman applies for the job of replacement gardener, Richard doesn’t recognise him, and he’s hired straight away. His friends Pascal and Ludwig arrive to help with the work needed to be done. Suffering from nightmares in which Richard is violent towards her, Marina grows ever more distant toward him and closer – at least on her part – to Borgman. With the children and Stine beginning to act strangely, and Marina becoming more and more desperate to be with Borgman, she asks him if there is something he can do about Richard. He can, and events converge on the night of a dinner party that includes Marina’s family, Borgman and his two friends, and Stine and her boyfriend, Arthur (Weerts).

Borgman - scene

The first Dutch movie in thirty-eight years to be selected for the Cannes Film Festival, Borgman is a dark, psychological thriller that comes replete with supernatural overtones. It’s a strange movie, uneven in places, disconcerting in others, and too much of its narrative feels arbitrary, or is left unexplained, for it to work fully. The mystery of Camiel Borgman and his associates is never completely revealed (though there are clues sprinkled throughout the movie), and the relationship between Marina and Richard lacks sufficient exploration to be completely convincing. And yet the movie is deceptively fascinating despite all this, taking hold from the start and keeping the viewer’s attention until the very (disappointing) end.

What stops the movie from being as rewarding or effective as it could be is the curious motivations behind Borgman’s activities and those of his associates. With writer/director van Warmerdam appearing unsure of which side of the coin he wants to come down on – are they angels or demons? – the resulting uncertainty is reflected in the tone and the imagery of the movie. There’s a repeated visual reference to Henry Fuseli’s The Nightmare, where an incubus sits atop a sleeping woman (several times Borgman is seen astride Marina while she sleeps), but there’s also a scar on Borgman’s back that may represent the absence of wings. This causes a fair degree of confusion about the character’s motives and his reasons for choosing the van Schenkels as his targets (at first it seems as if they’ve been chosen at random but as the movie continues it seems more appropriate to think of them as having been picked out deliberately). It also leads to an unsatisfactory conclusion that is as puzzling as it is abrupt.

With the movie proving inconsistent – even though it’s absorbing at the same time – it’s left to the cast to help maintain any semblance of continuity. Bijvoet is mesmerising as the title character, his remote gaze and dispassionate regard for the people around him so exactingly portrayed it makes his performance completely unnerving; you just never know what he’s thinking. There’s a degree of urbanity about him that’s contrasted by his manipulative behaviour, but Bijvoet handles the various differences in the character of Borgman with ease. As the troubled, frustrated Marina, Minis is equally as good, and equally as mesmerising as Bijvoet, and she helps ground the more elaborate, metaphysical aspects of the script. Alas, Perceval isn’t given enough leeway to make Richard anything more than a bully and a probable victim of Borgman’s scheme to see the pair fall into his trap. With the remaining characters used to widen the narrative, but often to very little effect, the movie remains essentially a two-hander.

But again, Borgman is consistently absorbing and intriguing, and van Warmerdam works hard to stop the movie from becoming too abstruse, creating a tone that combines mystery, very dark humour, and psychological suspense to impressive effect. He’s aided by Tom Erisman’s clinical photography and Job ter Burg’s ascetic editing style, each adding to the somewhat distant effect used by van Warmerdam to highlight the dysfunction of the characters and their actions. There’s also some clever lighting effects used when necessary, and the score by Vincent van Warmerdam is cleverly suited and adapted to the material’s even pace and disturbing moments.

Rating: 6/10 – with the resolution of its central mystery proving so unsatisfying, Borgman wastes a lot of time setting things up only to forget to follow through; Bijvoet and Minis make for superb protagonists but can’t prop up van Warmerdam’s unwieldy script enough to save it completely.

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