American filmmakers just don’t do weird and disturbing like European, Asian, or, heck, any other region of filmmakers. Borgman, written and directed by Dutch filmmaker Alex van Warmerdam, is one of those weird, disturbing films that’s more mentally than physically unsettling. If you’re inclined to think along these directions, it felt like a good conversation partner with the far-less-weird Calvary, particularly around themes of theology and religion and their place and role in a post-modern world.
The film opens with a faux-Biblical quote:
~and they descended upon the earth to strengthen their ranks~
Three men, a shotgun-wielding priest, a farmer with a german shepherd, and a mechanic with a long, pointed piece of steel, hunt down and root out Borgman (Jan Bijvoet), a forest dweller sleeping in an underground passage. Borgman escapes his hideout, rouses two other forest dwellers, and is off. He wanders from door to door in a nearby upper-class neighborhood, looking for a place to take a bath. At one house, the husband/father Richard (Jeroen Perceval) turns him down and, when Borgman presses him, almost beats him to death. Wife/mother Marina (Hadewych Minis) takes pity on Borgman, allows him to use their bath, and even puts him up in their guest cottage, all unbeknownst to Richard, who is far too busy with work to notice. Borgman exerts a certain charm over Marina and convinces her to hire him on as the new gardener. Borgman and two of his “assistants” quickly and ruthlessly dispose of the current gardner and his wife.
Borgman returns to Richard and Marina’s to “apply” for the new gardner position. He’s so cleaned up and freshly shorn that Richard fails to recognize him as the man that he beat only a few days before. Richard hires Borgman, and things get even weirder, fast. Richard’s life goes off the rails–specifically with trouble at work. Marina distances herself from Richard: she has nightmares that he is physically attacking her. As a result, she becomes more enamored with Borgman and tries to tempt him sexually, but Borgman resists. The new gardner brings in his two forest dwelling friends, Ludwig (van Warmerdam) and Pascal (Tom Dewispelaere), to help him rebuild the grounds. Icons of innocence, Richard and Marina’s three kids become pawns in both their marriage and in Borgman’s larger plans.
Borgman raises far more questions than it answers, and it seems appropriate for a film like this to let them serve as something of a review, rather than definitively telling you what the film is “about.” First off, economic/political readings of the film seem far too easy: the poor overthrowing the wealthy and robbing them of their children to “strengthen their ranks.” Or are they saving these kids for their own future, rescuing them from a life of hollow existence? And what of these children? Pascal operates on them, but we never see how. Has he added or removed something? Does this “surgery” make them docile followers of Borgman and his crew, or was this something that resulted from their upperclass breeding?
When the film ends, we’re no less certain of just who Borgman and his cronies are either. Are they representative of spurned innocence, unjustly cast out of a modern-day Garden of Eden? Are they Evil incarnate that, quite literally, spawns from the Earth? Are they appointed, as the opening quotation seems to suggest, to right society’s wrongs? The three hunters at the beginning of the film might stand in for the established religious, industrial, and agricultural order, which could explained why they feel so threatened. Recalling the Judeo-Christian notions of entertaining angels and serving the least of these, Borgman and the others could be seen as angelic beings who react in revenge after having been treated so inhospitably?
These lingering questions of identity and purpose also influence the violence in the film. While the film is violent, it’s almost (forgive me) humorously so. In its tone and narrative, Borgman recalls the work of Michael Haneke (equally unsettling) and Lars von Trier (but less offensive). It’s even more disturbing than Haneke’s Funny Games (another European home invasion film), because the invaders in Haneke’s film are just plain evil. Borgman, on the other hand, is more of a puzzle. It’s telling that some reviewers took the opening quotation at face value as really originating from the Bible. There’s probably something to be said for the mythic nature of both the Bible and Borgman and how we’re to make sense of the events in each, but that’s a question that I’ll only hint at.
Borgman (113 mins.) is unrated (those weird Europeans!), but it would probably receive an R-rating for violence and disturbing images. It’s currently playing On-Demand.