Review: ‘Borgman’ 9.12.14

Alex Van Warmerdam’s “Borgman” is an unbelievably unique and undeniable singular vision. One that follows on the heals of films by celebrated international directors like Pascual Laugier’s 2008’s “Martyrs”, Yorgos Lanthimos’ 2009’s exceptional “Dogtooth”, Michael Haneke’s 2009’s “The White Ribbon”, Ben Wheatley’s 2011’s “Kill List”, and Claire Denis’ 2013’s “Bastards”. I bring up these directors and their respective films I chose because all of them in some shape or form, be it in their social allegories (“Dogtooth”, “The White Ribbon, “Martyrs”), or their penchant for the macabre (“Kill List”, “Bastards”), were just a handful of the films that acted as reference points throughout. Especially “Dogtooth”. What interested me so much about this movie first was that I was hearing that it drew comparisons to the aforementioned films. But also that it was the first Dutch movie in 36 years that the panel at Cannes felt like belonged on their small slate of 18 films. I sometimes have to stress to people how unbelievable of a feat it is to get your movie selected and shown at Cannes. You’re talking about thousands of movies that are submitted every year from international film makers from all over the world to the world’s most prestigious film festival. That and only 18 make the cut. So pretty much of a film is selected at Cannes, chances are 9 times out of 10 that I will make a mental note of and see it when it’s released later in the year.

If you showed this movie to a 100 people everybody would give you a different explanation of what it was about. It’s very interpretive and most of the time you’re left wondering “wait a minute what the” or “what did I just see and what did it mean”? The story starts with a priest and 2 hillbilly types, getting ready for some kind of attack. They storm the woods and come across a network of people that live under the ground (yep), who escape their demise, and the leader, Anton, finds himself coming out of the woods and wandering into one of those rich, suburban, upper class communities. He goes door to door asking if he can take a bath or shower (uh-huh) and people are adamant about not letting him into their home, not only because it’s such a strange request, but because he looks like some kind of vagrant pedophile. He finally manages to be let into one woman’s home, because her husband gives him a beating, and she winds up feeling sorry for the guy. Here’s where things start to really get interesting (if they hadn’t been enough already). He infiltrates their home, and his focus seems to be to “move up the chain” and “sit at the big table”. Since his wife is hiding him from her husband this isn’t necessarily realistic. So he winds up camping out in their back shed. Soon after he starts to get comfortable, he begins calling what appears to be a sort of network of people, all who seem to be in it for some greater cause. To me I interpreted this “cause” to be wrecking havoc on the upper class. But that makes it sound too simple. By a series of events, they manage to take over the home, not literally, but in that the main character, Anton, shaves and goes under the guise of a gardener to secure a job and spot within the family’s home. Now him and his cronies, or what could be better referred to as “the network”, can really take over. That’s more or less the setup. Then really strange things start to happen involving hypnotizing the children in the home, killing people and putting their heads down in planting pots filled with concrete and sinking them in the water, serving up some kind of mysterious poisonous liquid to unsuspecting guests, along with tearing up the families entire property with bulldozers for reasons not entirely clear (like I said nothing is spelled out for you in this film). Along with various other antics and shenanigans. This is bizarre, absurdest, and extremely strange stuff indeed.

But within it’s absurdity also lies its brilliance. From the second the beginning credits started to role to the second they rolled up the screen following. I was totally hooked and immersed in the story. The brain light switch went on and didn’t go off for the duration of the entire film. What were these people’s motives? Who were they supposed to represent (they live underground, need to be invited into the homes, etc). The devil’s spawn perhaps? Some kind of group/cult/organization with supernatural tendencies? Clones? What on earth is going on here is what I was constantly asking myself throughout the film. But within that ambiguity of not really knowing what was going on I found myself more and more fascinated by it. It’s nicely shot and has some almost mystical, dreamlike sequences that were pretty effective. It’s also a great social allegory on classicism, racism and discrimination. And how protective people of the upper class really are of their privacy, and how they react once it’s been invaded. This was a very hard movie to review because there really were so many aspects one could refer to when talking about it. Which I thought was its greatest strength; its ability to engage the audience while still remaining faithful to the unbelievably strange and challenging source material. This I would definitely recommend but only to a certain demographic. If you are like me and are a fan of incredibly bizarre, experimental, absurdest, psychological  material. Well then this one might be for you. For everybody else, you might have a difficult and frustrating time of trying to get into such a weird and obtuse film.

Grade: strong B (*but strictly for a very specific type of audience)