By NATHAN LERNER
For 21st Century Media
The Dutch language import, “Borgman,” kicks off with a scene which is in equal parts, exciting and confusing. A group of agitated men; a shotgun-toting priest, a pair of companions, one armed with an axe and the other with a sharpened pole, and a ferociously barking dog are rushing through the forest. The hunting party is in hot pursuit of their prey. At first, we assume that they are chasing after some wild animal. However, their quarry is human. He is a wild-eyed, feral creature, with long, scraggly hair and an unkempt beard. He is living in some sort of sylvan, subterranean lair. Why is this man living underground? What are his putative offenses? Are they spiritual or secular, real or imagined?
Somehow, the man makes a narrow escape from his pursuers. A subsequent scene introduces us more fully to our protagonist, Camiel Borgman (Jan Bijvoet). He briefly encounters two other men Ludwig (filmmaker, Alex van Warmerdam, in a cameo) and Pascal, then subsequently a pair of women, Brenda and Ilonka. Borgman has some sort of antecedent, albeit undefined, relationship with these assorted folks.
Displaced from his prior home in the woods, this dirty, disheveled tramp ventures into civilization. He wanders through a suburban development with unclear intentions. Borgman knocks on the door of chic, ultra-modern home. When an attractive, blond housewife, Marina (Hadewych Minis) answers, he asks whether he might perchance take a bath. Disarmed by his polite manner, she considers this seemingly outlandish request. Before Marina can decide, her husband, Richard (Jeroen Preceval) returns home from work. He viciously beats the much smaller Borgman to a pulp. What fuels Richard’s rage — is it irrational jealousy or does Borgman’s mere existence somehow offend his sense of propriety?
Marina is appalled by her husband’s brutish behavior and is consumed with guilt. However, she remains under her spouse’s domineering control. To resolve her endogenous conflict, Marina surreptitiously invites Borgman to stay the night in a small guest cottage. It is separated from the familial domicile by an expansive garden. There, she tenderly treats this vagrant’s wounds and serves him with a home-cooked dinner.
Borgman was only invited by Marina to secretly stay a single night in the detached unit, with the understanding that he will depart the next morning. Instead, the next day, Borgman matter of factly wanders into the main house. It is the first of a series of unannounced visits. These intrusions initially unnerve Marina. However, she seems powerless to resist Borgman’s charismatic allure, as if she has succumbed to this stranger’s spell. Marina continues to indulge Borgman behind her husband’s back, ignoring the threat that he might pose to her three pre-teen children.
At night, Borgman appears in Marina’s eerie dreams. Within it, she asks him, “Couldn’t you return in a different form?” Borgman’s dreamscape analogue warns, “I could … but it will have consequences.”
In the lead role, Jan Bijvoet brilliantly underplays his character. His polished demeanor and mellifluous voice constitute a studied contrast to his status as societal pariah. He has a kindly air about him. From a different perspective, there are suggestions that he might be the ultimate boogeyman (is his surname a coincidence?), who disrupts the carefully-constructed equanimity of an affluent, suburban family. Is Borgman a benevolent savior or a sinister charlatan? His motives remain entirely inscrutable throughout the film. This performance proves pivotal to the ultimate success of “Borgman.”
Netherlands native, Alex Van Warmerdam, wrote the imaginative screenplay and deftly directs. His last work, “The Last Days of Emma Blank” garnered the Best European Film Award at the 2010 Venice Film Festival. Here, he parcels out information in a tantalizingly incremental fashion that will intrigue the viewer. Van Warmerdam keeps us guessing throughout. He carefully avoids any genre trappings and the result is a wholly original work. The film offers a subtle expose of class warfare. It also explores the ongoing battle between those, who tenaciously grasp onto conventional values, and those who defiantly eschew them.
The production values are solid. The cinematography by Tom Erisman consciously counterposes the bight daylight with the dark tone underlying the film. The crisp editing by Job ter Burg, evocative score by Vincent van Warmerdam, and production design by Geert Paredis complement the film’s narrative.
“Borgman” emerges as a dark allegory, leavened with a certain whimsical charm.
*** ½ No MPAA rating 113 minutes
Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose.com.