Dir/scr: Alex van Warmerdam. Holland. 2013. 113mins
Stitch together a Bunuellian satire of the bourgeoisie with the enigmatic unease of a Michael Haneke drama and the absurdist humour of Roy Andersson and you begin to have the measure of Borgman, an unsettling, blackly comic fable from veteran Dutch director Alex van Warmerdam (Grimm, The Last Days Of Emma Blank etc).
The film is at its wittiest in the way Borgman’s presence challenges all the class-based prejudices and cosy assumptions of Richard and his affluent family.
The heady mixture is elegantly intriguing and often outrageously funny in its first hour but begins to pall slightly as the body count rises in the second half. The imaginative scenario and deadpan execution should be sufficient to attract adventurous distributors and arthouse audiences who like to work for their rewards, others may be less persuaded by its sheer oddity.
The opening sequences of Borgman are among the most arresting as a priest leads a hunting party in search of the title character and his followers who are hiding out in an underground warren in the forest. Are they vampires or vagabonds? Is Borgman (Jan Bijvoet) a cult leader or the devil in disguise? He escapes and makes his way to leafy suburbia, knocking on doors and politely asking if he might take a bath.
His current look of a bedraggled, wild-haired Messiah is met by doors being slammed in his face. Arrogant television producer Richard (Jeroen Perceval) is so incensed by his request and his manner that he punches and kicks him to the ground. Later, his wife Marina (Hadewych Minis) offers Borgman a bath, food and a bed in their guest house. It is her good intentions and complicity with their clandestine guest that paves the way to a kind of hell.
Warmerdam never spells out who Borgman is or what his intentions might be. The film maintains a reserve throughout, playing everything close to its chest and refusing to distract with anything that could be construed as a typical genre trapping. Handsomely shot in cinemascope, the film unfolds in the bright light of a sunny Summer rather than the dark, mysterious shadows where evil is traditionally supposed to lurk. We are left with all sorts of questions but the kind that keep minds working over time, sustain interest and leave viewers with ample to chew over and debate in any post-screening conversations.
Jan Bijvoet has some of the velvety-voiced confidence of a Christoph Waltz and makes Borgman a calm, eternally reasonable kind of fellow. We observe his ability to take charge of any situation with a degree of admiration that almost makes us one of his followers. He ability to bring out the malice lying dormant in the good citizens of suburbia seems effortless. At the other end of the self- control spectrum, Jeroen Perceval is equally impressive as a husband with a trigger-hair temper and pressing anger management issues.
The film is at its wittiest in the way Borgman’s presence challenges all the class-based prejudices and cosy assumptions of Richard and his affluent family, in the manner of a more extreme version of Boudu Saved From Drowning.Borgman and his followers even seem to have the knack of instilling a Stepford Wives-style subservience in the women around them, including Marina and babysitter Stine (Sara Hjort Ditlevsen) and of randomly killing inconvenient strangers without arousing the curiosity of the authorities.
Borgman remains an elegantly teasing puzzle even as you begin to suspect there could be slightly less here than meets the eye.
Production companies: Graniet Film, NTR, Epidemic, Angel Films
Producer: Marc van Warmerdam
Co-producers: Eurydice Gysel, Koen Mortier, Mogens Glad, Tine Mosegaard
International sales:FortissimoFilms www.fortissimofilms.com
Cinematography: Tom Erisman
Editor: Job Ter Burg
Production designer: Geert Paredis
Music: Vincent van Warmerda
Main cast: Jan Bijvoet, Hadewych Minis, Jeroen Perceval, Sara Hjort Ditlevsen