About a year ago, Dutch writer-director Alex van Warmerdam unleashed Borgman all up in the Cannes Film Festival’s guts. Now Drafthouse Films is finally releasing this malicious black comedy that’s sure to cause a violent upheaval in the idyllic suburbs of your mind. A bizarre and playful film, Borgman feels like a deadpan fairy tale at times, but it’s rather hard to pin down. It’s best to leave any preconceptions behind and just let the titular character straddle you naked while you sweat out a fever dream about how your gardener wants to kill you.
Alex van Warmerdam keeps us on our toes right from the jump-off. A mysterious opening sequence sees three hunters (one a priest) out hunting for Borgman, a slender, bearded man with wild hair who is hiding out in a makeshift den under the ground. He narrowly escapes and manages to alert his cohorts, who are also slumbering in grave-like dens. It’s clear this isn’t their first time making a mad dash from below the surface of the earth.
From there Borgman splits up with his cohorts, though they’ll be coming back later to join in the fun. Stumbling into a rural area peppered with upscale houses, Borgman attempts to enter one with the intention of taking a bath. He’s savagely chased away by the home’s businessman patriarch, Richard, who beats him into unconsciousness. Richard’s wife, Marina (Hadewych Minis), feels sorry for this skeletal vagrant, so later when Richard leaves for work, she invites him in for a meal and a bath. But her remorse and curiosity run deep, so she allows him to sleep in their guest cottage for the night.
As Borgman attempts to leave, Marina is compelled to ask him to stay – the first sign that Borgman’s intoxicating spell is having its way with her bourgeois mind. Things escalate from here, particularly after Borgman shaves his beard off and Richard welcomes him as their new gardener. Does he really not recognize him? Or is it Borgman’s hypnotic charm that has Richard opening his door to this mysterious stranger?
The tension increases sharply during the second act, when Borgman invites his two friends from the beginning to stay with them, as well as two female accomplices who makes themselves right at home. The group subtly begins to control Marina, her three young children, and their attractive nanny – all while not doing a very good job tending to the garden (how they dispose of the old gardener is wicked). Borgman excels at emotionally manipulating Marina and toys with her until she’s throwing herself at him – all while Richard remains oblivious.
Who is Borgman and why is he screwing with this family? This is never answered and van Warmerdam only keeps on adding layers to the mystery. There’s the dogs who seem to materialize at random times – can Borgman and his friends shapeshift into canines? Other curious elements include a ritual that makes the children docile and a strangely beautiful stage performance put on by Borgman and his cohorts for the pleasure of Richard and his family.
I’m all for unexplained vague shit in films, but where Borgman started to stumble a bit for me was during the final act, when the cryptic narrative fails to add to the tension. The set up is ripe for suspense, and it is there for most of the film, but the closing scenes drain the tension out in a way. When we’re introduced to Borgman and co., they’re being run out of town by armed men. But here at Richard’s house, they seem to be in total control through the end. There’s no tension in that.
Despite what I perceived as a hiccup in tension, Borgman is an engrossing and interesting film from start to finish. It’s also a visually arresting one that utilizes its secluded location to great effect. Alex van Warmerdam offers no resolution or explanation as to why Borgman and his friends have ruined this family, though there is the sense of a cult recruitment program at the end. However you interpret it, there’s no denying it’s a wickedly funny and disturbing film.
Borgman is set for a June 6 release date from Drafthouse Films.