By James Teitelbaum.
The pivotal moment in Alex van Warmerdam’s Borgman comes at the end of the first act, when the titular Camiel Borgman (Jan Bijvoet) strides into a forest surrounding the modernist estate inhabited by Marina (Hadewych Minis) and her husband Richard (Jeroen Perceval). After taunting the violent Richard into beating him senseless, Borgman has been the compassionate Marina’s secret guest in a summer cottage at the edge of the woods. Healed, bathed, and fed, the charming but malevolent Borgman leaves without a goodbye. As Marina catches up with him, he explains to her that he “is bored” and “wants to play”. The grim sense of foreboding in these words cannot be misunderstood: no good can come out of this man’s twisted definition of “play”. Without a doubt, he has already played – as in manipulated – Richard, Marina, their nanny, and their children. He will continue to do so.
Borgman and his sinister team of minions insidiously insinuate themselves into the lives of the family, with no clear motives other than to cause discord, death, and heinous crimes of landscape architecture. This they do, in ways that are always brutal, but sometimes discomfortingly funny as well. The sort of black absurdity woven into Borgman has been largely missing from cinema since the departure of Buñuel, and in this film it adds a necessary respite from the nonchalant evil perpetrated by the characters. With the tiniest hints of the supernatural also suggested in the narrative, this unsettling glimpse into an opaque world is propelled along by assured performances from Bijvoet, Minis, and the rest of the cast.
It may strike some viewers as frustrating that van Warmerdam seems to drop us into Borgman as a story in progress, and he ends the film before the plot is adequately resolved. Ultimately, the film leaves the viewer with a lot of unanswered questions: we never learn where Borgman and his people come from (we first meet them as they are flushed from subterranean forest bunkers by a heavily armed priest), and we never learn their motives. There are creepy whippets running around the estate, strange scars that appear on most of the characters, sweet children suddenly behaving rather badly, and a few bystanders killed in unnecessarily convoluted ways, while other murders are carried out as casually as Indiana Jones wearily shooting a Cairo swordsman in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).
None of these things are explained, the payoff of learning Borgman’s motivation never comes, and the fate of the survivors is disquieting but unresolved. A sense of uneasiness pervades this film; the protagonist of this film is clearly a villain. Whom do we root for? Not Richard: he is violent and selfish. But not Borgman either: he is a manipulative killer. Perhaps it is Marina. As a housewife who creates lame action paintings that would have been edgy fifty years ago, she’s at the center of Borgman’s plot – whatever it may be – but among her family members, she seems to be in the least amount of danger. There is a conspiracy happening in this film, but it may be that the director is at the root of it, manipulating the ethical orientation of the viewer.
A quote suggestive of Christian mythological literature begins the film; this and the gun-slinging priest may suggest that Borgman and his kin are devils, emerging from under the Earth the first time we see them. Perhaps they are nothing more than a posse of twisted psychopaths. The importance of the woods as a character in this film is reminiscent of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks (1990-1991), and it doesn’t seem like a stretch to suggest that Camiel Borgman may be a pastiche of the denizens of Peaks’ Black Lodge, existing as the anthropomorphic incarnation of a force of nature beyond human comprehension. Perhaps Borgman and his crew represent nature itself. Don’t look too hard though: there are no answers to be found on screen.
It is acceptable for a director to leave things unanswered at the end of a film if such a thing is in service to the work, and a certain sense of ambiguity is not always unwelcome. That said, perhaps it is van Warmerdam, every bit as much as Camiel Borgman, who may be bored, and who wants to play. In this, his eighth feature (and, it should be noted, the first Dutch film to compete at Cannes in nearly four decades), the writer/director/actor seems to be playing with extremes in mood and tone as an invasive cohort of dark enigmas destroy a family. Does “who” and “why” matter? Van Warmerdam has succeeded in creating a disorienting and tonally unique work featuring a memorable set of characters, but he seems to have decided that character motivation and story resolution are expendable elements within a narrative film. In this case, I just may be inclined to agree.
James Teitelbaum is a media arts professor in Chicago. He has been writing film reviews for about a decade, and is the author of four books, including Destination: Cocktails (2012) and Big Stone Head (2009).