If 16-year-old me had seen Alex van Warmerdam’s Borgman, he would have wobbled out of the theater, drove to the nearest stoner’s house, begged for a sample (which would have been his first instance, because he was far too square to ever try anything like that back in high school), smoked in the nearest grassy field, and stared at the stars while meanings, theories, and regurgitated imagery came flooding into his brain.
A bit older, a bit wiser, a bit less enamored with vices, but just as easily captivated by surrealist imagination, Borgman jolted present day me back to those teenage years when a mind could still be blown. The Dutch horror comedy does not require illegal substances because it already feels like one; The movies tells the murky story of Camiel Borgman, a grungy vagrant who weasels his way into a upper middle class nuclear family only to destroy them from the inside out. Borgman may be the physical embodiment of evil, he may have psychic powers giving him the ability to “incept” victims with false memories, he may be the leader of a Satan-worshiping cult — it’s not all that clear. But it’s the vague exposition that makes it so weird. The meat of Borgman is in the imagery and radical tone, straddling chilling thriller and absurdist comedy. Warmerdam piles it on so our brains may feast.
The appeal of Borgman is the aftermath, that moment when those who survived — Borgman is not a movie for those who enjoy tidy endings — turn to each other and scream, in unison, “What the hell was that?!?” The film’s relationship with reality or digestible metaphor is tenuous at best. It may say nothing at all, more Rorschach test than allegory. So if you and brave moviegoers take a gamble on Borgman, here are a few prompts to get that conversation started:
Is Borgman a fallen angel in cahoots with Satan?
The film’s opening scene is the only real indication that Borgman and his hobo colleagues present any danger to the religious community. In the first five minutes, two hunters and a priest arm themselves with guns and spears, hoping to slay Borgman while he sleeps. They find him living underground — closer to Lucifer, perhaps? — but the elusive transient slips away, landing on the doorstep of Marina, Richard, and their two daughters. As the film plays out, Borgman’s agenda doesn’t scream Christian mythology, though the pieces in his game could trace back to the Bible. He impersonates a landscaper and builds the family a garden, tempting them into doing his bidding. All that’s missing is an apple.
Or maybe Borgman’s a mortal cultist?
Borgman takes enough detours during his journey to cloud Marina and her family with chaos that boiling it down to a Christian read seems a bit narrow. He may simply be driven by evil, like an aging Dutch version of The Joker. He’s out to cause chaos, and he’s convinced enough people that his cleansing/conversion process is all part of a good day’s work. Like Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, Borgman’s home invasion tactics are quiet and methodical. He doesn’t come bursting through the gates like Michael Myers, slashing his way into history books. Borgman plants seeds, stirs up trouble, hypnotizes his victims, and kills any side players who might get in the way. In this scenario, shocking maneuvers like the whole poisoning-the-real-gardener-cementing-his-head-in-a-bucket-and-dropping-him-into-a-lake thing is procedure. There’s no reason Marina and her family are targets — they just arrived in the crosshairs.
But Borgman has powers?
Warmerdam never crystalizes the rules of Borgman, a point that will inevitability infuriate/intrigue. There’s something supernatural running in his blood; Multiple times over the course of the film, a naked Borgman creeps into Marina’s room to rewire her dreams, turning her husband into a predator. His general presence seems to rattle the demeanors of the entire household, like he’s the One Ring from Lord of the Rings. Borgman’s corruption has physical elements — we see his cronies drug Marina’s children with magical orange Kool-Aid before surgically altering their shoulders — and his own tendencies border on ritualistic. If he’s not Satan proper, he might be some kind of vampiric hellhound looking for souls to add to his pack. Would explain the dog.
And why this family?
Adding to the goulash of thematic threads are Borgman’s prey. Marina and her hot-tempered husband’s relationship appears strained even before the drifter enters their picture. The life looks cushy: A nice house, money to burn on extravagant landscaping, an bright, attractive Au Pair taking care of the children. When Borgman arrives to the house, he requests a bath. All he wants is a moment of hospitality. Richard turns him away for looking like a shaggy homeless guy, recalling everything from Scrooge to the Prince from Beauty and the Beast. Are these random victims or did Borgman’s nose for awful people lead him to the house?
Go watch Borgman. You tell us.