When a film poses more questions than answers, the knee-jerk reaction is to peg it as an unintentional problem, as if the filmmakers made no artistic choice. Written and directed by Dutch filmmaker Alex van Warmerdam, Borgman is a compulsively watchable curiosity that defiantly rejects audience hand-holding and makes you perform the legwork all on your own. It is something when a film makes two of 2014’s arguably best films—Under the Skin and Enemy—seem accessible by comparison, but this horror-tinged whatchamacallit truly is uncompromising, unsettling, cryptic, elegantly shot and, frankly, quite weird.
The film opens with a Biblical-like quote, “And they descended upon the Earth to strengthen their ranks,” only to segue into a hunting party in the woods with a group of hunters, led by a rifle-wielding priest. It seems they are after the bearded Camiel Borgman (Jan Bijvoet), who lives underground and alerts his other earth dwellers, Ludwig (Warmerdam, the director) and Pascal (Tom Dewispelaere). Making his way out without a scratch and into an upper-crust neighborhood in the Dutch countryside, Borgman knocks on doors to request a bath. It’s not until he comes to the modern home of Richard (Jeroen Perceval) and Marina (Hadewych Minis) and their three children that the homeless interloper gets anywhere. Borgman claims he knows Marina and that she was his nurse once, both of which can’t be true, leaving her husband to beat the stranger on the front lawn. Later that night, Marina notices a flickering light in their backyard shed and finds the drifter. She takes pity on Borgman and secretly bathes him, feeds him, and lets him stay the night in the guest house. Unfortunately, something wicked and otherworldly this way comes. We haven’t even gotten to the supernatural wolfhounds, what Borgman does with the family’s gardener, the “X” tattoo that mysterious appears on Richard’s back, or the rest of Borgman’s malevolent tribe, including Brenda (Annet Malherbe, the director’s wife) and Ilonka (Eva van de Wijdeven), who have a skill for disposing of bodies in cement.
The story of Borgman is deliberately inscrutable, stringing the hopefully patient viewer along at the film’s own pace and vaguely reminding one of Greece’s disturbing, striking interesting Dogtooth. What the film sets out to do is far from obvious, but thinking back to the film’s opening quote, Borgman and his troupe have been sent from somewhere to multiply their own kind. Instead of explaining the m.o. of these travelers, writer-director van Warmerdam explores the domestic life of Richard and Marina. Richard alternates between belligerent and loving, while Marina, a painter, becomes increasingly shrewish and combative, losing control of her emotions. Could Borgman have a hold on Marina’s thoughts and dreams? Could Borgman have something to do with the eventual deterioration of the family? Yes and yes, but the “whys” aren’t really relevant on a literal level. Van Warmerdam seems to want to condemn a certain percentage of the economic status or just spin a darkly mysterious fable set in suburbia with his devilish title character bringing the damage once receiving an invitation. Also, a full-tilt unforgettable performance from Jan Bijvoet helps immensely. There is something seductive yet sinister about his enigmatic portrayal of Borgman.
Unpredictability is the name of the game here, and Borgman certainly averts expectations throughout, taking a linear approach to a very opaque story that isn’t a horror film in any traditional sense. The fact that the film so expertly builds unease and retains a specific sense of gallows humor, only to keep the method of its madness close to the vest, could be a case of over-promising and under-delivering, but it is still unsettling and hard to shake. Will you “get” it? On the first viewing, most likely not. No matter what the viewer takes away from it immediately afterwards or whether all of the pieces fall together, Borgman will certainly stick with you and haunt your psyche. As they say, there ain’t nothing like it.See Borgman in select theaters now.