Borgman opens in Boston today, July 18. Check your local listings for showtimes.
Often when you find a really great film, it’s something that you want to revisit. You look forward to going back into that masterfully crafted other world to scavenge for gems that you casually passed by the first time. Drafthouse Films, the film distribution offshoot of the incomparable Alamo Drafthouse, does not seem interested in that kind of success. Having released 22 films since their 2010 inception, every single one is just strange or unsettling enough to make it unappetizing to your average film distributor. Borgman keeps with this tradition, a film that is just as confusing and disturbing as it is fantastic.
A bearded drifter Camiel Borgman (Jan Bijvoet) is a strange creature. We meet him in his home beneath the ground, as a group of three men set out to unearth him. Sensing their impending presence, he collects his things and looks to make his escape. Running through the forest as the men destroy his home, he only stops to alert his under dwelling compatriots of the coming destruction. Having evacuated the forest, he heads to a nearby neighborhood. After finding little luck in a less than welcoming suburbia, he lights upon the secluded and elaborately modern home of a wealthy family. While his presence quickly upsets the man of the house, the matriarch, Marina (Hadewych Minis), takes pity on him and allows him to quietly rest in their separate guest house. But there is something strange about Borgman, and he slowly begins to transform the wealthy family’s life into something else altogether.
I have seen my share of films and typically I am able to move on, letting them simply roll across my back like a water along a duck’s. But Borgman is different. It is the type of film that forces you to react, to feel something, and sends your brain doing somersaults of what-ifs. It presents itself so simply.
You are immediately plunged into this world, offered no explanation as to what is going on. Writer-director Alex van Warmerdam wonderfully has no time for exposition. He immediately sets upon crafting, building a land that feels just familiar enough to make everything that follows all the more unsettling. Nothing about Borgman should make you fear him, but Bijvoet’s performance displays a command of the understated. I fear for Bijvoet’s mental health, as he communicates a deep knowledge and closeness to Borgman, fully inhabiting the character. His complete immersion is what makes the film so successful.
As calmly as the film begins, the dread is palpable. There is just something off about Borgman, a man of strange appearance but inescapable charm. The audience only knows that three men wanted him to meet a grisly end, but as to why is hard to gather. The film plays gleefully in this field of the unspoken, with van Warmerdam’s primary concern being that of creating a palpable atmosphere rather than ensuring that the audience is fully aware of what is going on. The dread builds like a precisely orchestrated crescendo, drawing you deeper and deeper into this world of oddity and confusion. You become one of the family, unaware of what is overtaking you but unable to resist being drawn closer. For much of the film, so very little actually happens, but you yearn for more, to see what crooked path Borgman is leading us down, regardless of how much you know you should turn back.
I wanted to find fault in the performances, with the story requiring them to turn on a dime with little explanation or exploration of driving influence; but I just couldn’t. Despite the requirements of the story, the actors’ deep devotion to the material communicates an inherent honesty that forgives what a lesser film would not. The steady camera and immaculate art direction form a world that is removed enough to allow for this psychological breakdown, but close enough to our own to make your skin crawl.
Throughout the film, the audience is offered snippets of a dark and twisted fairy tale. Borgman confidently enraptures the three children with his story that doesn’t kowtow to any standards of society, unafraid of facing doom. Ultimately that is what Borgman is: a modern Grimm fairy tale without the sheen that modern expectations have necessitated. As the film played out before my eyes, the happiness within me was slowly leeched out. By the time the end credits rolled, I was emotional exhausted. The film had sucked every ounce of happiness from within me, but it had done so at such a gradual pace that I didn’t even know that it had occurred. You are forced to sit back without understanding of what is happening, or what is looming around the corner. Borgman has you the entire time, mesmerizing and forcing you to press on with the hope for relief. A relief that will never come.
You can find more from Derek by following him on Twitter @DerekDeskins.