Borgman became a running joke between colleagues at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival, based solely on the unusual promotional photos and posters the marketing team plastered all over the festival’s press offices and theaters. They were so strange, we were forced to comment.
“What are you seeing at 10 a.m. tomorrow?”
“Awesome. What are you running to after that?”
“Probably Borgman again.”
Ironically, no one in my small circle caught up with Alex van Warmerdam’s dark and twisted fairy tale thriller during the fest, but my curiosity levels were high when a Borgman DVD arrived at the office. And do you know what? The movie’s every bit as bizarre as we had imagined.
Borgman begins by introducing us to men living in holes in the woods. Their peaceful existence is on borrowed time, however, as these vagrants are being hunted and flushed out, as creatures would be hunted by terrified townsmen (and a parish priest, of course) in a fable. This isn’t a distant past, though. It’s modern times, and Camiel Borgman (grungy Jan Bijvoet) – rooted from his terrestrial existence – heads to a familiar suburban location for shelter. He approaches the home of a nurse, Marina (Hadewych Minis), who pretends in front of her husband not to know this grimy stranger. Yet, they are connected by a mysterious past, which Borgman carefully unpacks with patience and a powerful taste for gallows humor. (The bodies in the lake, impossibly, are a hoot.)
Who is this stranger? How does Marina know Borgman? And why is she seemingly in debt to this unwashed oddity? The man’s a gifted storyteller, spinning yarns to entertain Marina’s young children (even though he has promised to stay out of sight from her distrusting and abusive spouse). Is he weaving a massive yarn that somehow has pulled the wool over Marina’s eyes?
The exact nature of the threat in Borgman reels us in and keeps us invested. “There is something that surrounds us,” Marina says to her husband, the fear of the reality of her current situation playing across Minis’ face. “Something that is outside us, but slips in now and then. A warmth. A pleasant warmth that intoxicates, but also confuses.”
This statement, too, summarizes Borgman, a distinctly different cocktail of violence, uncertainty, hallucinatory mysticism and possible criminal activity. Good luck finding stability while watching Borgman. The film masters an ability to keep us reeling, on our heels for virtually the entire run. As Borgman, the character, burrows himself deeper into the lives of Marina and her family – a process that keeps adding new, peculiar faces to his enveloping scheme – we buckle in for the ride and wait for a satisfying conclusion (enduring a moderate body count and wondering how these games will play out). Can someone just tell me why the hell Borgman strips naked and sits in Marina’s bed while she sleeps? It’s starting to freak me out.
Borgman is about as European as they come, and I mean that as a sincere compliment. Crystal-clear character motivations aren’t required, as van Warmerdam places enough faith in his audience that they will have the patience to ride out his vague storyline until a resolution presents itself. You can wonder about the scars on the backs of different characters, but their relevance won’t be reveled until van Warmerdam is good and ready. The director’s visual palette is dull, but the characters are colorful enough. Borgman burrows under our skins by being different. Ironically, the fact that it’s so different might scare the bulk of its potential audience away.