A good mystery movie does not always fit the classic whodunit model, with all questions tidily wrapped up like the ending of a “Scooby Doo” cartoon. Some of the more intriguing films sometimes have shrouded agendas and mystifying characters whose motives remain obscure despite behavior that may seem puzzling until the film’s final moments. These films often go beyond the most cerebral sort of entertainment. This loosens a film up for moral interpretation, allowing the viewer to question not only the action on screen but what he or she might bring to such films in an attempt to discern What It All Means.
One of the great examples of such a films is Borgman, the new movie by Dutch director/writer/actor Alex van Warmerdam. The filmmaker, whose film was the Netherlands’ entry for this year’s Oscars, shows little mercy to an audience that might wish to fully understand the motivations of the bizarre characters who subtly prey on an upper middle class family trying to live in isolationist bliss. Though there is enough associative action to enlighten the cause and effect of much of the film’s action— even if some actions seem supernatural— mystery still permeates the film.
Borgman opens with a title card in quotations but attributed to no one: “and they descended upon the earth to strengthen their ranks.” Who “they” are and from where they “descended” and why they wish to “strengthen their ranks” remains unknown by the end of the movie. More questions will arise throughout the film, whose title alludes to the film’s main instigator of much of the film’s action, the precocious Camiel Borgman (Jan Bijvoet), an unkempt bearded man who the viewer meets as he slumbers in a makeshift but spacious hole in the ground. Warmerdam does something gripping and mysterious at the start of the film, allowing the audience a bit of dramatic irony to bias them to something vaguely sinister about him and two other men, one played by the director (a character named Ludwig) and Tom Dewispelaere (Pascal). After the enigmatic title card, we first meet the trio’s hunters: an armed man holding the leash of an enthusiastic German Shepherd, a man with a large metal spear and a stern-faced priest wielding a shotgun. The hunters never speak, and though they destroy Camiel’s hidden home, Camiel slips away in the shroud of a smoke bomb and alerts the other two, who we also meet sleeping in beds under the earth.
It’s an opening sequence full of intrigue and tension, so when Borgman hustles into an opulent neighborhood, looking for a bath, we understand this to be a man with some possibly terrible threatening baggage. After a maid wordlessly slams a door in his face, he makes it to the home of Marina (Hadewych Minis) and Richard (Jeroen Perceval), who live with their three children and a nanny. They do allow him to open his mouth, and the words, though they end up enraging Richard into beating him up, still seem to be the key to his being given shelter by Marina. The domestic intrusion results in many startling encounters in the clash between a man who may be much more than a vagrant. Weird happenings and murder seem to abound around him.
There are also a few humorous moments that the viewer may think to understand only to have the rug of understanding pulled out from under them. The characters’ behavior follows a sort of logic of its own that keeps the film as riveting as flowing along with the slippery narrative of a dream. Though van Warmerdam drops a few narrative cues to maintain intrigue, they sometimes lead to dead ends. Some may find this frustrating, but those who like mystery and appreciate the inherit ominous character of the unknown will appreciate Borgman. Though Marina tries to keep Camiel out of the house, holing him away in a guest house on the other side of the family’s expansive yard, with the curtains drawn, Borgman often finds his way into the main house. The youngest daughter names him first: “I saw a magician” she tells her mother.
What keeps the film engaging is the appearance of strange happenings or behavior that imply a history the audience is denied explanation for. While we know that Camiel, Pascal and Ludwig were chased out of some other town by a posse, we never know what set the locals off or what they knew about this trio of men who were simply trying to nap in their’ homes below ground. Maybe they are mischievous gnomes? Yet that would only superficially explain why the live underground. The implication that Borgman might be a demon arises when, in several scenes he is seen crouching naked over a slumbering Marina. The image appears after a domestic scene between husband and wife turns brutal, revealing she is having vivid nightmares. The influence of Fuseli’s The Nightmare, something the film’s poster artist brings up in this interview, could imply Borgman is an incubus.
The cause and effect can be heavy-handed in this scene. But for moments like this, there are finer moments of subtly loaded with quirky implication. Two large whippets somehow enter the home and slink around, until Borgman turns to them and tells them they’ve arrived too early. The dogs then turn around and slink out. But Marina has noticed and her suspicions only grow deeper … and more illogical.
As odd and surreal the film might feel, van Warmerdam presents no heavy-handed, stylized lighting but rather a subtle interplay of light and shadow and sparing, outstanding details, like some sly Lynch-like heavy blue drapes in the couple’s bedroom or the zigzag pattern of the wallpaper in the family’s living room. The focus is always clear and sustained in deep focus. Camera movements and framing never seem to distract, daring the viewer to try to pay attention to deliberately staged medium shots for some hint of the out-of-the-ordinary. Yet Borgman feels like a rather ordinary film littered with matter-of-fact details that could turn and reveal some dark abyss the human mind was never programmed to understand. When the group of intruders put on a ballet in the home’s backyard, the family has grown uncomfortably cozy with these characters, suspending judgment to the amateurish show that features the men in tutus, yet still wearing slacks and sneakers.
So what does this all mean, many will wonder? There is a powerful allusion to Richard’s racism, and the family’s insulation from the outside world stands out. The director, who also wrote the script, seems to toy with the idea of evil as a rather banal force. He deconstructs the notion of civility in upper class suburbia by introducing the troupe of domestic intruders to this complacent family. Standing as testament to how warped the family may be is the actions of the children, who are shuffled off to school in the morning, given treats at dinner and then put to bed with story-time by the nanny. Borgman soon takes over the task, offering his own bedtime story where he tells them about “the white child above the clouds” and an ever-growing monster in a lake below. And its the youngest girl’s behavior that will probably be most remembered as the most disturbing actor in the film’s ever-twisting path into darkness.
The intrusion of this man is so far from other home invasion films. Forget about comparisons to Haneke or those dumb stalker movies from Hollywood. There’s a smart implication of an evil beyond individuals involved here. It’s metaphysical, and it will crawl under your skin.
Borgman runs 113 minutes is in English and Dutch with English subtitles and is not rated (however, expect disturbing behavior and nudity). It opens in South Florida on June 20 at Miami Beach Cinematheque and July 4 at the Lake Worth Playhouse in Lake Worth. Nationwide screenings dates can be found here. DrafthouseFilms provided an on-line screener for the purposes of this review.