7.5

Borgman

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<i>Borgman</i>

Anyone watching Borgman from a literal perspective is going to be powerfully frustrated. From that angle, this Dutch drama will seem to be populated by painfully naïve characters at the mercy of a passive tyrant who very methodically lays waste to their domesticity. But as an allegory, writer-director Alex van Warmerdam’s film is relentlessly upsetting, hinting at universal themes without ever quite putting its finger on any specific one. Borgman is a movie about the way that families fall apart without ever realizing it until the whole house collapses. Or maybe it’s about psychic vampires. Maybe both.

As Borgman begins, the titular man (Jan Bijvoet) is hiding out in the woods, on the run from some angry locals armed with shotguns. With his mangy beard and far-off look, Borgman gives off the air of a slightly unsettling vagrant. Looking for somewhere to hide, he goes door to door in a quiet community, asking if he can come inside for a moment. No one gives him the time of day until he arrives at the house of Richard (Jeroen Perceval) and his wife, Marina (Hadewych Minis). Richard tries to rebuff the stranger, but Borgman insists that he knows the man’s wife, setting Richard into a jealous fury. Marina doesn’t, in fact, know Borgman, but she takes pity on him, allowing him to stay in their guesthouse, keeping it a secret from her husband.

To describe what happens next would be an exercise in bewilderment. Things occur not due to logic but because of … well, a sort of subconscious continuity. Marina becomes drawn to Borgman, and the family’s three children also take a shine to him, although they all seem hypnotized (as opposed to charmed) by this unkempt, enigmatic man. Suddenly, a plan is hatched that he will become their new gardener, which requires him to shave off his beard and change his clothes so that Richard won’t realize it’s him. All the while, Borgman’s secretive associates (which include an ominous individual played by van Warmerdam) conspire to eliminate people in the family’s immediate circle.

There’s a grim certainty that takes hold of Borgman early on. Once the vagrant latches onto this family, their fate is sealed. But why? How do we seem so sure of their doom? And why does no one in the family have the power to prevent Borgman’s plan? Those questions eat at us over the course of this pseudo-horror movie, which has little gore but loads of bad vibes. Van Warmerdam doesn’t provide answers, offering instead a deadpan tone that sometimes creeps over into dark comedy. (How many dead bodies can one pond hold? The answer may surprise you…)

Though the film unspools with a nightmare’s cockeyed lucidity—the flow of events defies reason, but minute to minute it all hangs together properly—van Warmerdam drops enough hints to indicate where he’s going with this unusual home-invasion drama. The key to unlocking Borgman’s icy charm is to see this tale as a metaphor, as a cautionary tale about the private hells within the idealized societal myth of having the kids, the wife and the picket fence.

Despite their comfortable upper-middle-class lives, Richard and Marina seem weighed down with silent resentments, their marriage little more than a series of empty actions. (As for their children, they’re a somewhat predictable collection of eerily beautiful pod people—and that’s before Borgman gets his hands on them.) And into this world walks a menace ready to strike. In vampire lore, there’s a belief that a bloodsucker can’t enter your home unless you give it permission, and that certainly seems to be the case in Borgman, although our villain doesn’t have fangs or a fear of the sun. Rather, he and his minions seem to feast on discontent, gnawing into the soft underbelly of domestic conventionality and harvesting the best elements. (Revealing what those “elements” are would be to spoil one of Borgman’s most delectable mysteries.) Borgman is able to seduce Marina not because he’s so evil but because she’s so susceptible, trapped in a life she can no longer stand.

At its weakest, Borgman recycles the deranged-family satire of films like Funny Games or Dogtooth, making similar points about the terrifying conformity of suburban existence. But the depth of van Warmerdam’s commitment to his uneasy allegory gives the movie a headlong, sometimes sickening rush. We like to tell ourselves that we can ward off evil if we buy a good-enough security system or find the right partner. Borgman does away with those niceties with clinical precision. Even worse, the film suggests that we can never stave off the darkness that’s been within us all along, just waiting to be summoned.

Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste and the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.

Director: Alex van Warmerdam
Writer: Alex van Warmerdam
Starring: Jan Bijvoet, Hadewych Minis, Jeroen Perceval
Release Date: June 6, 2014