Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 53 minutes
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
(Dutch with English subtitles)
Directed by: Alex Van Warmerdam
Written by: Alex Van Warmerdam
Starring: Jan Bijvoet, Hadewych Minis, Jeroen Perceval, Alex Van Warmerdam, Tom Dewispelaere, Sara Hjort Ditlevsen & Elve Lijbaart
I’ve never seen anything quite like BORGMAN. There’s something to be said in that. The movie echoes a tone similar to Michael Haneke’s thrillers, but winds up being an original beast of its own design. The plot is easy enough to follow, but also vague enough to warrant some irritation. Director/writer Alex Van Warmerdam seems follow in the footsteps of his sinister title character and BORGMAN ultimately winds up being too mysterious for its own good. This is an art-house thriller that is beautifully constructed, but suffering in losing steam and potential along the way. This Dutch movie (the country’s entry for 2014’s Academy Awards and ultimately snubbed from the short list) can be analyzed in plenty of different views. It’s an oddball little story that can be seen as a fairy tale, a contained take on class warfare, or an explosion of civilized chaos. It’s all of these things and more, but lacks in full coherency and a satisfying payoff.
Camiel Borgman is a dirty, hairy vagrant looking for a quick bath. He’s just been driven out of his underground hidey-ho by an armed trio (two rednecks and a priest). Quickly packing up what he can carry on his back and warning a few vagrant friends (also living in underground dwellings) along the way, Borgman finds himself at the luxurious home of a wealthy family. Despite a couple of roadblocks, Borgman winds up manipulating his way into the house. Needless to say that he receives a bath and so much more. The family begins to fall apart in calculated ways as Borgman stands by influencing each member in a different way.
The script is layered in deeper meanings. One being Borgman’s name, which was a common last name of landlords during the medieval ages. The story being told begins as a straight-forward narrative with nudges at recurring themes throughout. However, the introduction of other characters is where things begin to stray from the nice and easy path to follow. There are hints that something bigger is going on between the cracks and this never fully pays off. Instead, we see everything come to the all too predictable conclusion that’s being set up throughout the film. It’s as if director/writer Alex Van Warmerdam wanted to tell a complex tale, but felt that it might go over the heads of too many people and decided to stick to the simple route. The result comes off as a film conflicted its unknown nature and immersed in so many deeper meanings that the viewer may lose interest in a few places (it’s nearly two hours long).
Regardless of the odd script that never embraces the full potential being built, the movie maintains a sense of unease. It’s a disturbing and creepy film that only has a couple of brief moments containing any blood on the screen at all. There is a mean streak of pitch-black humor that delivers on uncomfortable scenarios that might have you chuckling, as wrong as it may seem to do so. Characters make some stupid decisions and there’s nobody that’s fully likable in the film, but that also fits into the story being told. BORGMAN accomplishes the goal of being an ugly film revolving around bad people doing horrible things to other bad people. There’s a dark side in all of us and Camille Borgman seems intent on bringing a little of that out in everyone who crosses his path. The cast do a solid enough job, but the best performance easily belongs to Jan Bijovet as Borgman. This man brings out the oddly charismatic side to this lunatic, while also reveling in the cold side that calculates on bringing sinister his intentions into the lives of this well-to-do household.
It goes without saying (but I’m going to say it anyway) that BORGMAN is definitely not for everybody. It plays out like a thriller, but is an arthouse film at heart. The running time is long and the pacing is deliberate. However, I never was out-and-out bored. There were some stretches where things weren’t as up to snuff as the rest of the film, but I rather enjoyed this demented fairy tale for grown-ups. It’s strange, weird, and odd. The film entertained me in spite of the problems I ultimately have with it. In the end, BORGMAN is for Haneke fans and those who dig on stuff like TAXIDERMIA and DOGTOOTH. All others need not apply.