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Borgman  (2014)
4 Stars
Directed by Alex van Warmerdam.
Cast: Hadewych Minis, Jan Bijvoet, Jeroen Perceval, Sara Hjort Ditlevsen, Alex van Warmerdam, Tom Dewispelaere, Elve Lijbaart, Pieter-Bas de Waard, Dirkje van der Pijl, Annet Malherbe, Eva van de Wijdeven, Mike Weerts, Gene Bervoets, Ariane Schluter, Pierre Bokma.
2014 – 113 minutes
Not Rated (equivalent of an R for violence, disturbing images, sexual content, nudity and language).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, June 17, 2014.
A scathing deconstruction of class status, familial dysfunction and the evilness which man is capable, "Borgman" unveils a portrait of the world as wincingly pessimistic as it is unnervingly accurate. Dutch filmmaker Alex van Warmerdam's hypnagogic, barrier-toppling chiller of human dysphoria and dismantled social mores exists on a plane straddling reality and semi-surreal metaphoric mysticism, one that twists a knife squarely into common conformity. If the picture falls into what could best be described as the home-invasion subgenre, such categorization seems far too quaint and marginalizing for something so uniquely, hair-raisingly inventive. To watch the boundlessly unpredictable "Borgman" unpeel one disquieting layer at a time is to be simultaneously invigorated, terrified and humbled by the vastness of its macabre ambition.

Narrowly escaping attack on his self-made underground dugout in the woods, wild-haired drifter Camiel Borgman (Jan Bijvoet) makes his way to the affluent home of Richard (Jeroen Perceval) and Marina van Schendel (Hadewych Minis) in search of a place to shower. When he claims to recognize Marina as a nurse who once cared for him—an artist, she denies knowing him or having ever worked in the healthcare profession—Richard loses his cool and savagely beats up the stranger. Though Richard says that his rash actions stemmed from wanting to protect his wife, Marina sees his behavior as a brute, savage embodiment of all his insecurities and unsavory values come to light. Angry at her husband and wanting to rectify the situation, she secretly welcomes Borgman into their home to clean up, then gives him a place to stay for the night in the small guest house on their property. Marina hopes this kind gesture will be enough to make up for the way he was treated, but getting rid of him won't be so easy. Coming and going as he pleases right under Richard's nose, Borgman's powerful esoteric sway begins to infect not only Marina, whose nightmares are fraught with spousal abuse and grisly violence, but also in their three children and English-speaking nanny Stine (Sara Hjort Ditlevsen).

Amidst a cinematic vista where audiences are predisposed to expect little else but a seeming Hollywood assembly line of imitation, "Borgman" claws voraciously through the walls of convention to arrive at a place where one can barely believe his or her eyes. A coal-black cautionary fable about the breakdown of a doomed family's tissue-thin bonds, the film casts an implicit but no less damning judgment on characters eaten up by their bigoted entitlement, interpersonal disconnection, ensuing loss of identity, and the murderous, possibly otherworldly forces that come calling. Heroes and villains have no place in a story where everyone, in one way or another, is either at fault or failing the people around them. Believing he knows best, Richard tries to disperse control as a means of keeping order to his household. When their gardener goes missing, he and his wife having ended up at the bottom of a nearby lake, their heads cemented in pots and their bodies ominously sprouting like underwater plants, Richard hastily looks to refill the position. He turns away the first candidate after learning that he isn't college-educated and slams the door in the face of another purely based on his being black. When the groomed, clean-shaven, all but entirely unrecognizable Borgman shows up, however, Richard gives him the job on sight and allows him to stay in the "guest wing" so as not to delay the all-important work he wants done to the spacious grounds. Pretty soon, Borgman's "helpers," Ludwig (Alex van Warmerdam) and Pascal (Tom Dewispelaere), are also laboring on the premises, the finished result of their landscaping project about to be used for a dismaying purpose separate from what Richard has in mind.

Although the film is named after the enigmatic Camiel Borgman—and Jan Bijvoet (2013's "The Broken Circle Breakdown"), who plays him, is unforgettable as the soft-spoken demonic harbinger of death—it is Hadewych Minis, as the afflicted, questionably spellbound Marina, whose performance really gets under one's skin. Stricken with guilt over her family's privileged mindset and their tendency to take things for granted, she questions whether they are deserving of their good fortune and is shaken by the painful answer she knows to be true. Attempts to get through to her kids—she accuses youngest daughter Isolde (Elve Lijbaart) of being a spoiled brat when she discovers the little girl has ripped open her teddy bear—strike as misguided and desperate in the face of so much else that is wrong with their family unit. Meanwhile, her distaste for her husband intensifies as she is drawn closer to Borgman's deceptive web. Marina makes plenty of mistakes before losing herself altogether, but it is heartbreaking all the same to watch as the thought-safe life she has built starts to crumble. Minis is astounding in a role that is demanding in every way, culminating in a curiously unshakable pinnacle of despair and apathy.

Portraying a character whose past is as cryptic as his intentions, Jan Biljvoet is slight of build but intimidating in his deliberate, unflinching gall. Equipped to deceive and entrance, Borgman aims to take over the van Schendels like puppets who don't realize they are attached to strings. Ingratiation turns to brainwashing as he visits Isolde in her room—at one point, she calls him "the magician," only for Richard to assume she's hallucinating from her illness—but it is Marina whom he begins to mess with most of all. The sight of him crouching nude above her as she sleeps in her bed is a particularly powerful image, breaking all boundaries of privacy and safety people expect when they are in the supposed sanctity of their own home. As Richard, a man poisoned by more than just his discriminatory belief system, Jeroen Perceval succinctly plays his part as if he wasn't ego-driven and racist. Thus, even keeping in mind his selfishness and middling parental responsibilities, sympathy still exists in his genuine love for his family. He never quite grasps that what he is doing is wrong, and it is this crucial fact that exemplifies the ugly, messy, contradictory complexity of humanity. The rest of the cast is sterling across the board, from Sara Hjort Ditlevsen's young nanny Stine, privy to more than she lets on, to Annet Malherbe and Eva van de Wijdeven as Brenda and Ilonka, a mother-daughter team ready and willing to do Borgman's bidding.

With each new revealing scene and unsettlingly enticing moment, writer-director Alex van Warmerdam has carved and crafted an alarming masterpiece of harsh, malevolent reverence. A tragedy for what happens and an even bigger tragedy for what cannot be salvaged, "Borgman" embraces its loaded ambiguity while presenting a bold vision that feels meticulously plotted and designed. Is the title figure a devil, a savior or simply a psychopathic cult leader with a strange orange elixir and a bevy of surgical scalpels among his arsenal? Is the film horror, or fantasy, or one of the grimmest satires that has ever been concocted about class warfare and the convulsive state of the nuclear family? Losing grasp of her literal glass house and not sure what to do about it, Marina gazes up at the bristling trees and twinkling stars high above, nature all around her and the magnificent universe as a whole unable to intervene with a life, and an approaching fate, that are only hers. Shot by cinematographer Tom Erisman in Noord-Holland, Netherlands, the locations (and the sleek, sharp-edged architecture of the van Schendel home, itself and the residence's forever wide-open sliding doors their own characters in the story) seem familiar yet exotically hyper-modern, a fairy tale encroaching upon the common disappointments, unfair cruelties and unspoken words of our fragile existence. By the end, every soul in view—not just Borgman's wicked troupe of performers, putting on a portentous staged playlet for their hosts in the neatly manicured backyard—has been rendered an actor playing a part, shellshocked into hollow visages where intimacy and emotional authenticity should have been all along. It is a horrific thought and an almost shocking sight, spread out in a tableaux of indelible, quaking duress.
© 2014 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman