In a house in the woods, a man with a dog puts on his shoes and strides out the door. Nearby, a man with an axe joins the man with the dog. The man with the dog and the man with the axe enter a church and lock eyes with the priest, who is just exiting the rectory. The men form a trio and walk briskly out the door and back into the woods, but not before the priest grabs his shotgun.
Another man–lank, bearded, and dirty–awakens from a sleeping place under the ground. The bearded man pokes a periscope up through the ground and surveys the woods. The coast is clear. The man, Camiel Borgman (Jan Bijvoet), emerges from his hidey-hole and sprints through the forest, knocking on the ground and yelling for other men to wake up and run. More dirty, bearded men climb out of holes in the ground. These men are being hunted.
Borgman escapes to the edge of the woods, where the thick forest floor of dead leaves butts up against the manicured lawns of an affluent suburb. Borgman rings the doorbell on one of these nice suburban houses and asks the woman of the house, Marina (Hadewych Minis) for a bath. She politely refuses. When Borgman insists, Marina’s husband Richard (Jeroen Perceval) beats him up and leaves him writhing on the lawn.
From there, the weirdness intensifies.
Weirdness radiates out from the center of Borgman like ripples from a pebble cast in a placid lake. Writer/director Alex Van Warmerdam spins a delightfully dark fairy tale that’s part religious allegory and part social satire. Warmerdam skillfully blends cultural referents as varied as Fuseli’s Gothic painting “The Nightmare” (above), the Brothers Grimm, 21st century terrorism, Jonestown-esque cultism, Hamlet, archangels, and the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden into a film whose consistently surprising revelations make viewing it a far less heady task that one might imagine. Yes, Borgman is thick with “Did you get it?” moments, and signs and symbols that can be deciphered for further “enlightenment,” but there is a kind of pleasant befuddlement that permeates the viewing experience. Sometimes it’s nice to be baffled for a few hours, especially when these hours are spent with the impish, enigmatic Camiel Borgman.
Jan Bijvoet’s face, hidden behind a scraggly beard for the first half of the film, is almost innocent–like a curious, but polite, child. When Borgman shows up to Marina’s house a second time, this time clean-shaven, well-dressed and surprisingly handsome, Bijvoet’s performance shifts from childlike to menacing. The relationship between Borgman and Marina intensifies, from that of nightmare/victim, to Svengali/subject, and finally to something approximating a marriage.
If there is a “key” to understanding Borgman, it’s Marina’s line: “We are fortunate, and the fortunate must be punished.” Her guilt over her family’s affluence, and the embarrassment and discomfort she feels when Richard acts like a privileged yuppie, are perhaps the reason Borgman visits Marina in the first place. He, and his gang of like-minded cohorts, “mark” the family–for what, it is not immediately clear. Borgman infiltrates the family unit and upends any sense of familial harmony that might have exists, first by charming the couple’s three children, then by seducing Marina, and finally, by eliminating Richard entirely. Borgman disguises himself as the gardener and literally transforms the family’s well-manicured lawn into a swamp. Into this swamp, many secrets are submerged.
Warmerdam’s direction recalls Yorgos Lanthimos‘ Dogtooth, another film about a comfortable family unraveling via occultish psychological manipulation. Like Lanthimos, Warmerdam tempers the inherently twisted narrative with a flat, static visual style of medium and long shots, long takes, natural lighting, and minimal camera movement. By refusing to fragment the pace with frequent cuts, Warmerdam creates a sense of everything going exactly as planned; there is a kind of sinister clockwork in Borgman’s machinations, as if each new scene were the next page in a dark fairy tale that’s already been written.
Borgman is a film that lingers long after it’s ended. Like a shadow you think you see out of the corner of your eye; like a bad dream you can’t stop having; like that strange man you think you’ve seen before…deja vu? Check your doorstep; Borgman might be coming for you.