A peculiar Dutch “thriller” Borgman begins with the title character (Jan Bijvoet) being chased from his underground home in a forest. He ends up in a small residential neighborhood where he knocks on Richard’s (Jeroen Perceval) door and asks if he could take a bath. Richard declines the “vagrant’s” request, prompting Borgman to claim to know Richard’s wife, Marina (Hadewych Minis). Marina, however, has no knowledge of Borgman, and this fact prompts Richard to physically attack the stranger.
Marina, feeling badly allows Borgman to bathe in their home and lets him sleep in the summer house as long at Richard does not find out. Thus begins a sinister game where Borgman take a revenge of sorts on Richard through his family.
Borgman shows how Richard’s relationship with his wife and kids destructs as a result of the title character entering their lives. Marina is reluctant to forgive her husband for his violent behavior, and she falls under the spell of the stranger. She is soon having strange dreams while a naked Borgman sits on top of her. The couple’s child, Isolde (Elve Lijbaart) falls ill suddenly, and is soothed by the appearance of Borgman, whom she dubs “a magician.” Other strange events occur, including a pair of dogs inexplicably entering the house.
Writer/director Alex van Warmerdam films all of this quite coolly, letting viewers piece things together. The title character is deliberately enigmatic, and that what makes him so fascinating. Bijvoet also plays him with an impish mischief that adds to the film’s fun. Borgman may sacrifice Marina’s gardener to abide by her wishes to stay close to her, but he will not touch her (as she desires) because she is married. The ideas of faith/fidelity are upheld even if the would-be lovers plot and execute a murder. Such is the murky morality of the film.
Borgman does exhibit a dark sense of humor during the killing scenes. Borgman uses a curare-like substance to poison his victims, and with the help of a group of friends, he buries the bodies in water, placing the corpse’s head in a bucket of cement. A shot of three upside-down underwater cadavers is fantastic.
Significantly, the most violent “crime” is committed not by Borgman, but by another character in the film. It reveals much about the impact the stranger has on this particular family member.
If Borgman does not escalate into nastier business, it consistently threatens to. A dinner table scene shows how frayed Richard and Marina’s nerves are, and seeing the couple come apart is part of the film’s fun. When she begs him to take the kids to school one day, and he fobs the responsibility off on one of Borgman’s friends, there are consequences.
And perhaps this is what is so insidious about the film. Every simple gesture or action, however noble the intention, backfires on the characters. There is a discussion between Richard and Marina about being punished for their good fortune, and the film certainly shows the extent of the repercussions. But it never insists that there is a cause/effect relationship here.
Borgman does not try to explain some of its mysteries—such as who Borgman is and where he came from—but the film does provide some heavy-handed metaphors, such as the family’s yard being uprooted not unlike their lives.
Yet, this is a minor quibble in an otherwise highly provocative film.
Borgman opens today in Philly area theaters.
Author: Gary M. Kramer
Gary M. Kramer is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer and film critic. He is the co-editor of the forthcoming book, Directory of World Cinema: Argentina. Follow him on twitter @garymkramer.