Editor’s note: Our review of Borgman originally ran during last year’s Cannes Film Festival, but we’re re-running it now as the film opens in limited release.
Alex van Warmerdam‘s Borgman is the first Dutch film to play In Competition at Cannes in just shy of 40 years, and with its daring, deeply dark yet also rib-ticklingly amusing subject matter it unquestionably proves the country’s cinematic worthiness. Early reviews emerging from the Croisette have already compared the film to both Yorgos Lanthimos’s Dogtooth, and the more severe works of Michael Haneke, two touchstones that absolutely hit the mark.
Borgman is absolutely a film best approached with only a cursory knowledge of its plot — not that van Warmerdam gives much away himself. The opening images show a disheveled middle-aged man, Borgman (Jan Bijvoet), being disturbed while sleeping in an underground compartment, at which point he flees and knocks on the door of married couple Richard (Jeroen Perceval) and Marina (Hadewych Minis). Richard turns him away after administering a harsh beating, but Marina takes sympathy and allows him to recuperate in the guest wing. However, little does she know quite what she has invited into her home.
What might prove surprising to some from the outset is how funny van Warmerdam’s film is. Priests toting shotguns and witty wordplay, for instance, are among two of the very first things we encounter. Though Borgman is unquestionably sinister, it also has a better grasp on tone than, for instance, Haneke’s films, which intentionally lack pretty much any measure of levity whatsoever.
Here, it’s pretty difficult to take the situation seriously, given that Borgman has his minions — some of whom appear to sporadically shape-shift into hounds at certain points — dunk two of the cult’s murder victims head-first in buckets of concrete before sinking them into the nearby lake. For a good deal of the film, the approach by both killer and director suggests that both the characters and we, the audience, are being dutifully trolled.
Van Warmerdam keeps us in the dark for most of the picture, which is rather amusing in of itself, as increasingly absurd things happen to the central family unit. To the director’s credit, he doesn’t clue us in too much as to the family’s relationships with one another prior to the invasion, such that when Marina begins to dream of being violently abused by her husband, we have no idea whether this is a memory or simply something that has been implanted by the malevolent entity presently residing in her home.
The central performance by Bijvoet as the initially bedraggled beggar who reveals himself to be a suave, sophisticated golem of sorts is immaculate and sure to be a high talking point of both the film and the festival. Given that this sort of Count Dracula-esque role has been played so many times before (realize, though, that Borgman is a vampire film in no way, shape or form), it’s all the more credit to Bijvoet for finding a bold new direction in which to take it.
Not far behind the actor, meanwhile, is everyone else; Minis naturally gives the next-meatiest performance as the wife slowly seduced by Borgman, while the remaining supporting characters, namely the sexy young nanny Stine (Sara Hjort Ditlevsen) and the family’s children, all get memorable moments to shine.
In the Cannes press conference following the film, van Warmerdam made it clear that he had no inclination to explain the film, instead favouring audience interpretation. While some things are more, for want of a better word, concrete than others, the certainty is that the director has crafted a disturbing but also wickedly funny gem. With Spielberg on the jury, this tale of a family driven to madness by an invasive force hasn’t got a chance in Hell of winning the Palme d’Or, but it’s damn-near destined to endure as a cult classic and high-point of contemporary Dutch cinema.
The Upside: Alex van Warmerdam returns his country to Cannes competition in diverting style with a superbly directed, stingingly hilarious dark comedy that will entice and intrigue the patient viewer.
The Downside: The deliberate approach will likely not appeal to more casual moviegoers, and it’s probably fair to say that the pace could have been stepped up a tad mid-film.
On the Side: Actress Annet Malherbe has a small part in Borgman, and she is also the director’s wife, having played roles in the vast majority of his films to date.