The first Dutch feature in the main Cannes competition in 38 years, Borgman is laced with Alex van Warmerdam’s characteristically droll humor but sees the writer-director venturing into darker, more unsettling waters. A quirky study of the unrelenting grip of evil, the film is beautifully made, though stronger in its intriguing setup than its muddy resolution. Still, this is an engrossing and original work that should find an international niche.
Since making a mark in the Netherlands with his 1986 feature debut Abel and then cracking the festival circuit in 1992 with The Northerners, van Warmerdam has assembled a richly idiosyncratic body of work, most of which he also appears in with his wife Annet Malherbe. In films like The Dress, Little Tony and Grimm, he brings a deadpan observational style to seemingly ordinary lowlanders, subjecting them to absurd situations, sticky psychological challenges and simmering threats of violence.
“And they descended upon the earth to strengthen their ranks,” reads a quote at the start of Borgman. To the extent that its enigmas are explained, the film could be described as a cult recruitment thriller, with possible supernatural undercurrents. The presence of watchful hounds sauntering through the house where insidious intruders have established their domain vaguely recalls such demon-spawn classics as The Omen. But van Warmerdam mostly eschews standard genre trappings.
Last year Cannes brought us snuggly Haneke, as the great man thawed out for Amour. This year, we get ho-hum Haneke, courtesy of a Dutch Funny Games knockoff which tickles happily for the first 40 minutes, then gets niggly, then annoying, and finally just a bit tedious.
Things begin swell, with a man knocking back some pickled fish straight from the jar (welcome to the Netherlands!) before joining some pals, headed by a priest, who are hunting down our hero (Jan Bijvoet). He's a forest-dweller, squirreled away with colleagues in a complex underground den. Thanks to the quick wit of Borgman – thick beard, straggle hair, mad eyes, cavernous face – they all escape; he then pitches up in a posh suburb and starts knocking on doors asking if he can have a wash.
The occupants turn him down, including Richard (Jeroen Perceval), who kicks Borgman senseless at his impudence. Later that night, when Richard has left the luxy pad he shares with his wife, Marina (Hadewych Minis), their three blonde moppets and foxy au pair, Borgman asks Marina for shelter and food. Shamed by both her husband's behaviour and her own burgeoning attraction to Borgman, she becomes complicit.
Time passes, with Borgie squirrelled in the summer house and, then somehow, suddenly, Marina never wants him to leave. There is no relationship, but, just because he "wants to play", Borgman cooks up an elaborate plan to dispose of the gardener and install himself, shorn and scrubbed, in his place.
If Michael Haneke had a slightly less ironic appreciation of the term “funny games,” he might have cooked up something a little like “Borgman,” a sly, insidious and intermittently hilarious domestic thriller that is likely to remain one of the most daring selections of this year’s Cannes competish. More disquieting than explicit, this eighth feature from Dutch writer-helmer Alex van Warmerdam, who also features memorably in the ensemble, strikes a familiar note in its allegorical punishment of the entitled upper classes, but the execution is sufficiently inventive to mark the pic as a challenge worth accepting for adventurous arthouse distribs.
For the sake of descriptive economy, it’s tempting to classify “Borgman” (named for its oddly passive-aggressive chief villain) as another entry in the increasingly popular subgenre of the home-invasion thriller, but that would misrepresent the film’s more complex premise. “Home inveigling” or even “home infection” would be closer to the mark: Many of the most horrific domestic violations in this story occur with the permission of the family under threat, lending a Pinter-esque slant to van Warmerdam’s slow-burning narrative.
Caustic, surreal, creepy, and blackly funny, Dutch polymath Alex van Warmerdam’s “Borgman” is the trickster god in this year’s Cannes competition pantheon. Tonally similar to recent cultish favorites from Yorgos Lanthimos and Ben Wheatley (“Dogtooth” feels like a particularly close and favoured first cousin), there’s also a little Haneke in its chilly dissection of a perfect bourgeois life. But it’s really its own thing, due to the inspired choice to take recognisable archetypes of evil and mischief-making, and let them loose on a crisply contemporary, contained playground in the form of an aspirational, architect-designed modernist house, its gardens, and the lives of the family that lives there.
With pitch-perfect performances across the board, and boasting crisp photography and editing, the film never ceases to twist, turn and surprise, taking wicked joy in constantly switching us back on ourselves and our expectations of the characters. Appropriate, then, that it popped up at us like a jack-in-the-box this morning to prove one of the biggest unexpected pleasures the festival has thus far provided.
The prologue to the main story begins as a priest with a shotgun, a young man carrying a sharpened pole and a third man armed with an axe, go hunting in the woods. They’re tracking Camiel Borgman (Jan Bijvoet, in a brilliantly ambivalent, underplayed turn), who is hiding in a pit dug into the forest floor and hidden from view. Borgman, seemingly a wildman cross between Boudu from Renoir’s “Boudu Saved from Drowning” and Rasputin, evades his pursuers, and, alerting two cohorts also hiding in the forest, he flees for pastures new. Turning up later on Richard and Marina’s (Jeroen Perceval and Hadewych Minis) well-heeled doorstep, Borgman causes a scene by claiming to know Marina. Richard retaliates by beating him viciously, for which Marina feels guilty and eventually, behind Richard’s back, installs Borgman in the small summer house on the other side of the large garden.