I’m not going to say much about Borgman. By my rules, it’s a 2013 film, so I wouldn’t have to worry about factoring it into this year’s rankings or awards–and since I didn’t care for it, I wouldn’t have given it much, anyway. But it’s the kind of film I didn’t care for that I’m not going to categorically dismiss because…I can see why someone would like it. I’m willing to admit I might have just seen it on the wrong day (it was a rather stressful day, and certainly I’m only human), since this particular kind of nihilistic fable requires the right frame of mind to truly appreciate. But even then, it’s the kind of film which mostly just reminds you of better films.
The film begins with three men–one with an attack dog, a priest with a shotgun, and one with a homemade spear–seeking out the underground home of Camiel Borgman (Jan Bijvoet). Why, the film never quite makes clear. Borgman escapes unseen, and alerts his compatriots (who are also living in underground shelters) that they have been discovered, before fleeing into a nearby city. He arrives at the home of Richard (Jeroen Perceval) and Marina (Haedwych Minis), asking for a bath (he’s unshaven and clearly unwashed). Richard declines to admit him, and when he attempts to get an in by claiming to know Marina (she does not recognize him), Richard beats him up, and Marina, taking pity on Borgman, covertly allows him to bathe, feeds him, and even allows him to stay the night in a small house on their property.
But Borgman does not leave, and although he remains undetected by Richard, he begins to wander about the house, telling stories to Richard and Marina’s children, and in general keeping Marina on pins and needles. One day, having seemingly left, he contacts another pair of his colleagues and prepares poison darts, one of which he fires at Richard and Marina’s gardener, sending him into spasms of pain. Stealing a family car, Borgman drives the gardener to his home, tells the gardener’s wife that a doctor is on the way, and when she leaves the room poisons him further before knocking him out, killing him. The colleagues arrive, kill the gardener’s wife, and hide both bodies in a lake. Marina, discovering the mess left by the gardener’s collapse, hides the evidence as best she can, then tells Richard to put up a notice that they are seeking a new gardener.
Ultimately, Borgman–having shaved his beard and cut his hair, rendering himself basically unrecognizable–applies for the job, and gets it, and his colleagues, posing as his assistants, join him in infiltrating the household. Marina has nightmares of an abusive Richard, which causes their marriage to fall apart as she becomes obsessed with Borgman, their children become increasingly sinister (especially the youngest daughter), and the children’s nanny Stine (Sara Hjort Ditlevsen) likewise displays uncharacteristic behavior. Without giving it away, before it ends, there are more deaths, more aberrant behavior, and no clear explanation as to why.
I don’t demand that a film have a clear interpretation or an obvious message–quite the opposite, in fact. Several sources, including the director/writer himself, suggest that Borgman is a kind of Devil figure, which, given his corrupting effect on those he comes into contact with, is certainly a reasonable interpretation of the character and his actions. So on one level, I could certainly explain to myself what I saw and why it happened.
But that’s overlooking a much bigger issue: I really didn’t care. Once people started getting killed, my interest level began to sink. I can’t totally explain why, since I’ve found other dark, even nihilistic films to be quite effective. But take Funny Games–a film which this film reminds me of; while it’s dark, ugly, and violent, it also makes a point about violence in society, and about how people can be manipulated via social graces. But it also worked because there was a sense of urgency, because what happens to the family in Funny Games is not so far outside the realm of possibility as to not be terrifying.
Borgman, though, is a cold, remote film, one which does not compensate with great cinematic skill or sufficient dark humor (like, say, Dogtooth) for its essentially off-putting content. The characters are perhaps the biggest issue: Borgman himself at least has a little impish energy–Bijvoet does quite well–but everyone else in the film is chilly and unlikable. Richard is an arrogant jerk (that he beats up Borgman strains believability, but it’s necessary for Marina to pity him and thus set the plot in motion). And Marina is a rather misogynistically conceived character, less so in her manipulability via pity than in her later being controlled by her passion for Borgman. Stine likewise is initially cold and detached (in probably the film’s funniest moment, Marina upbraids her for her sloth, saying “We’re not in Denmark!”), and later defined mostly by her sexual attachment to one of Borgman’s colleagues (played, if I remember correctly, by director Alex van Warmerdam).
The children, for their part, are stone-faced little monsters, and Borgman’s colleagues lack much personality. The characters are mostly ciphers to be manipulated and/or to commit unpleasant acts.
The bourgeois sentimentalist in me would’ve liked some emotional payoff, but I can placate that side of myself if there was some intellectual reward on hand. But there isn’t. There are interesting ideas in the film–Borgman and his acolytes and the havoc they wreak could be the basis for a fine film–but it offers surprisingly little in exchange for what it demands. I could’ve overlooked this in a shorter film; at 45 minutes, it could’ve been worthwhile. But Borgman runs 113 minutes, far too long for this sort of film (Dogtooth was 97 minutes, and even that was perhaps stretching it a little), and there’s definitely fat that could’ve been trimmed here; the entire first act could have been condensed, with Borgman fleeing from his pursuers at the start, spotting the gardener and killing him, and proceeding directly to his infiltration of the house as the new gardener. Would it have changed the flow of the story? Yes, but it would have wasted less time.
But maybe I was in the wrong frame of mind. Maybe I’m just over this particular brand of nihilism. Certainly the critics embraced it. Maybe you will, too. It’s certainly not a badly made film. van Warmerdamn directs it well enough, and along with cinematographer Tom Erisman creates a few strong images, particularly one which references Henry Fuseli’s painting The Nightmare (below).
The acting isn’t bad, either. Bijvoet is definitely the MVP, but Perceval and Minis aren’t bad, given what they’ve got to work with. So I can’t rightly dismiss this as a bad film, just as one that left me cold, one which I grew increasingly weary with as the darkness mounted and the point of it all remained quite obscure. I’d say you should watch Funny Games, Dogtooth, or Boudu Saved From Drowning (or even its remake, Down and Out in Beverly Hills) before you bother with this, but if you’re dead-set on seeing it, more power to you.