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Non-Review Review: Borgman

This film was seen as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival 2014.

Part of what is so fascinating about Borgman is just how little Alex van Warmerdam is willing to tell us about what is going on. There are points when van Warmerdam’s biting black comedy seems to veer from domestic drama into straight-up fantasy, with very little concession made to explaining the events seen on screen to the audience. Who (or what) is the eponymous drifter? What does he want? Why does he do whatever it is that he seems to be doing?

Van Warmerdam doesn’t feel obligated to provide any explicit answers, and Borgman feels much stronger for it.

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There’s a weird level of abstraction at work here, as van Warmerdam follows the disintegration of a middle-class nuclear family whose lives just happened to intersect with the charismatic homeless person. We are introduced to Camiel Borgman hiding deep underground in a Dutch forest, hunted by several local including a shotgun-carrying priest. There’s no context for any of this, except that it flushes Borgman (and some of his associates) out into the open, forcing him to seem shelter where ever possible.

There are a few indications in Borgman that Camiel may one of the faery folk – a mysterious trickster living on the very edge of civilisation, with an uncanny and unwholesome ability to meddle in human affairs. He seems to have strange control over animals, and the ability to cloud the minds of those around him; he comes and goes as he pleases, only seen when he wants to be seen and capable of getting anywhere he needs to go.

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However, if he is one of those mythological creatures existing on the blurry line between reality and fantasy, he has modernised quite thoroughly He might occasionally use a blow dart, but he also coordinates with his acquaintances via mobile phone; they aren’t averse to using tools or weapons or bludgeons. He enjoys nice wine and good television. It’s not too hard to rationalise Camiel as an entirely human creature, just a strange and charismatic one.

Van Warmerdam trusts the audience to reach their own conclusions about the creature laying siege to this modern family. He’s far more interested in the breakdown occurring in this rather affluent household – the pressures eating away at Marina and Richard, both struggling with their own demons and insecurities. Well characterised by performers Hadewych Minis and Jeroen Perceval, the movie keeps a cautious distance from the couple, turning their misadventures into pitch black comedy. (The movie rather quickly establishes that Richard is hot-headed and racist.)

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Borgman is strangely charming, given its subject matter. There’s a very dark and cynical wit behind the movie, as Camiel and his associates manoeuvre themselves deeper and deeper into the heart of Marina and Richard’s family life. Van Warmerdam is endearingly and delightfully blaisé about sudden shifts in mood and ambiance, catching the audience off-guard as Camiel goes from charming and eccentric to cold and ruthless and back again, with the shift so jarring that the audience can’t help but laugh at it.

To be fair, van Warmerdam is ably assisted by actor Jan Bijvoet in the title role. As the mysterious stranger who asks to use the bath and then never leaves, Bijvoet is by turns hilarious and terrifying, charming and haunting. There’s a wonderfully sinister edge to the character’s charisma, and his eyes serve as portals to some distant and horrifying realm. With some great comedic timing, but also a wonderful screen presence, Bijvoet helps hold the film together, along with sterling work by Hadwych Minis.

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It’s hard to resist the charm of Borgman, a film so aware of its own refusal to explain itself that the climax involves the villains staging an abstract stage show in place of the expected villainous lecture. It’s a movie that could very easily be infuriating, but there’s a wit to Borgman that can’t help but seem endearing and strangely engaging, even as it remains mysterious and impenetrable. Much like its lead character, then.

All audience members are asked to rank films in the festival from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, here is my score: 3

One Response

  1. Interesting picutes, thanks for sharing.

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