BORGMAN is not an easy film. It’s a sort of adult parable about getting what you want, or a very perverse fairy tale, the kind that existed before Disney cleaned them up and sold them back to us as children’s stories. Borgman lives as a vagrant, in a hole under the ground with a few others, until a priest shakes them out. On a quest for a shower, he comes across a well-off family and convinces Marina, wife and mother of three, to let him hide out in the summerhouse. After continuously pushing her boundaries, sneaking into the house when the husband is not there, talking with the children, Marina becomes obsessed with Borgman. She wants to keep him in her summerhouse, but he wants ‘to play.’ They devise a plan that he comes back, under an official capacity, so he will not have to hide from the husband.
Here’s where the tale takes a turn for the bizarre. Borgman poisons the gardener, then takes him back to his house, where he kills his wife. He then returns to the house and applies for the job as the gardener. Marina’s husband fails to recognize him; he is welcomed into the family, and invited to live in the summerhouse. Borgman has a group of accomplices who help him dispose of his victims, and who move in with him to assist in tearing up the garden. Meanwhile, Marina begins to have these horrific dreams, involving her husband physically and sexually abusing her. Like some sort of imp, Borgman is seen looming over her in bed as she has these nightmares, always departing just before she wakes and takes out her fears on her husband. But Marina is not Borgman’s only victim, as his accomplices take the children and the nanny under their power through some sort of mind control that is not made clear but most certainly involves cutting them open and putting something inside of them.
BORGMAN is one of those films that makes you uncomfortable watching it, but you can’t turn away all the same. As it begins, you are tricked into rooting for the gypsy-like vagrant, as he is turned away, house after house. When Marina’s husband hits him because he will not leave, you believe Marina is doing the right thing by inviting him to stay covertly. It is only halfway through the film when you realize that you are invested in a character that is pure evil and intends harm to innocent children. The film plays out a bit like a horror home-invasion-flick, never quite hitting a level of gore necessary to satisfy that audience, but certainly fulfilling the discomfort level through the situations. Every scene is full of tension, and the pure lack of any moral compass or reason behind what is happening is perhaps the most frightening element of the film.
Certainly, Marina welcomes the evil in, and the film could be read strictly as puritanical judgment against infidelity – through the course of the film she loses her husband and her children in pursuit of another man. But BORGMAN never feels that simple. In a sort of expressionist moment, Borgman’s associates stage a play for the family to watch to celebrate the completion of the garden. The Marina and the children sit comatose, not recognizing one of the performers is the ‘doctor’ who examined them a day earlier when they all felt sick. No one seems to question the bizarre nature of the play or the lack of any plants in the garden.
In the end, Borgman departs, having disassembled the family in his own particular way, and moves on. His reasons are never revealed and the film will fail to reassure anyone hungry for meaning. This is a film that someone could write a thesis paper on, arguing social class warfare, or possibly overturning traditional male and female roles in the household, or even the effect of emptiness in an era devoid of religion. It is a film to see with another person and argue with afterwards. It is probably not a film to see with your spouse… What works best is the air of creepiness that pervades every scene, especially with the attractive young nanny, who seems to have some sense of what is happening to the family, but never interposes.
BORGMAN was nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2013 and played in the Vanguard section at the Toronto International Film Festival. It was the Dutch entry to the Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards, though was not nominated. It is another acquisition of Drafthouse Films and seems to fit in perfectly with their aesthetic, reminding me a lot of CHEAP THRILLS in terms of tone, and their upcoming R100 in style and pace. If anything I’ve said in this article intrigues, you should definitely see this film, it will not be soon forgotten. But if you are looking for a simple night out, or don’t want your sensibilities challenged, stay clear. Personally, I felt like there was just enough here to hold my interest, but it doesn’t quite hold together as a fully realized film. The family felt ‘under the spell’ before that had really been earned and no one fights back, so there is actually very little conflict, just people being acted upon. In this way, the scenes never feel very dramatic, just a series of events in an unbreakable chain that is begun when Borgman arrives. The less people fight back, the more the ending seems inevitable, and thus underwhelming. But maybe I was just cheering for the wrong character.