Watching the fascinating, funny/eerie and very accomplished Dutch film Borgman is like seeing a new fable cobbled together in front of your eyes. It feels like a long-running saga rooted deep in the past, but with its feet now firmly planted in the wifi-ed current world.
In fact, when we first meet the title character (Jan Bijvoet), he’s scurrying out of his (literal) underground hideout — the kind of burrow that gnomes or maybe trolls favored in old Nordic tales. But as he evades three villagers (one of them a priest) toting serious firepower, he tries to call out warnings to his comrades — on his cell phone.
His full name? Camiel Borgman. Or so we’re told. Who knows? When he searches for a new home, this cadaverous, gray-haired fellow calls himself Anton Breskens. That’s the name by which Marina (Hadewych Minis) first knows him when he comes to the door of the expensive, ugly postmodern concrete bunker of a home she shares with her husband Richard (Jeroen Perceval). Looking exactly like a hairy, smelly vagrant, Borgman/Breskens is admirably direct: he tells Richard he would like to come inside and take a bath. He then suggests that he knew Richard’s wife some time ago. At this faint whiff of insinuation of a long-ago intimacy, Richard beats the crap out of him.
The resulting cuts and bruises might as well be the invitation to a vampire to cross the threshold, or nuts and cheeses laid out in the basement to welcome vermin inside a home. Borgman’s wounds appeal to Marina’s nurturing side (she has three kids of her own). The idea of adult companionship is probably attractive, too; Marina is alone all day, and the family’s compound is in a gorgeous but remote patch of forest. So she secretly lets Borgman heal in their guest house for a day or two. And Borgman, long story short, stays.
As the underground prologue suggests, he’s no regular homeless fellow. He has compatriots of his kind (whatever kind that is), including Ludwig (the film’s writer-director Alex van Warmerdam), Pascal (Tom Dewispelaere) and Brenda (Annet Malherbe), who come at his call in various disguises. They’re a sort of infernal, drolly practical team working together on a long con — where the score isn’t money but possibly lives, or even souls.
Our first glimpse of supernatural elements at work is the sight of Borgman crouched naked on Marina’s sleeping chest, an incubus filling her head with violent nightmares that make her, on waking, question her marriage. There are serpents at work here. It’s a perfect metaphor when Borgman’s team poses as gardeners, basically destroying Richard and Marina’s landscaping in pursuit of some new design.
Borgman won’t be universally loved. At its start, it feels like a cousin of something by Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Amélie), before he overdosed on whimsy. Then it comes closer to the terrain of more disturbing Euro-thrillers like Harry, He’s Here to Help and Michael Haneke’s Funny Games. It’s a singular, deeply black comedy/thriller. When you think van Warmerdam might soften the trajectory of his story, he remains unbending. The film stays elusive and playful to the end, but in ways that change your reaction from quiet chuckles to tingling dread.
The movie will remind you of other things — Funny Games, Boudu Saved from Drowning, Teorema, The Draftsman’s Contract and even “The Pied Piper of Hamelin” — but it retains its own identity as it balances different film genres against each other: comedy, supernatural thriller, film noir, surreal farce.
The strong cast are all on van Warmerdam’s chill, deadpan wavelength — especially Bijvoet as Borgman. At the start we’re led to believe (I was, anyway) that he’s some sort of scamp, a secretly lovable (if grumpy-faced) trickster. That opinion changed by the end when it becomes clear that Borgman is as much empty vessel as agent provocateur; he’s just an elder representative and victim himself of this mysterious ritual we watch unfold.
Is there a political or social parable at work? I can’t say. There are certainly themes here — trust, temptation, conformity, passion — that are deathless in both political and personal spheres.
The unattributed epigraph that opens the film — “and they descended upon the earth to strengthen their ranks” — does not specify who “they” are. Neither does Borgman itself. The film’s refusal to answer most of the mysteries it creates might frustrate, even enrage, some viewers. But the sustained enigma and cool craftsmanship van Warmerdam brings to the story are the movie’s greatest strengths.
Borgman. With Jan Bijvoet, Hadewych Minis, Jeroen Perceval. Written and directed by Alex van Warmerdam. In Dutch and English with subtitles. Unrated. 113 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.