After being chased out of his underground lair in the forest, Camiel Borgman comes across the house of Richard and Marina. When attempting to gain access to their home in order to take a bath and get some food, Camiel is savagely beaten by Richard. Feeling remorseful, Marina eventually grants Borgman his request after Richard has left for his job. Shortly, Borgman begins to not only manipulate Marina but her children and the live-in nanny as well. The more this mysterious vagrant weaves himself into the lives of this family, the more he deconstructs the home and the comfortable life that that Marina and Richard have built.
Alex van Warmerdam's film "Borgman" appears to have been a festival underdog as it swept people by surprise, especially when it became an official selection of Cannes. It is easy to understand why as Warmerdam made an interesting and engaging film. Something not usually seen in the home invasion sub-genre that can be tiresome and often as formulaic as slashers or zombie films. Few have tried to go beyond the typical plot structure, such as Michael Haneke with "Funny Games" (take your pick as to which version) but it's been awhile since something as abstract and challenging as "Borgman" has come along.
After a preacher and two local men, armed with weapons, drive Camiel Borgman and his cohorts out of their hiding places in the woods, Borgman finds himself at the doorstep of the home of Marina and Richard. An upper class white couple with three children and a live-in nanny. While trying to charm his way into their home in order to get some food and to take a bath, Richard violently beats Borgman. Feeling guilty, Marina brings him into their home after Richard leaves for work and while this was intended as nothing more than a momentary act of hospitality, Borgman has methodically started working his way into the lives of this family. Slowly and systematically, he breaks the conformity that held this family together.
Suffice to say, there is very little that can prepare you for the experience of watching "Borgman". It might come across as sounding negative, even thought that is not my intentions, but "Borgman" is an overbearing film. A majority of cinema wants to affect the audience on a visceral level; that immediate knee-jerk and emotional response. "Borgman" is never overtly emotional, dramatic or even violent but it continuously applies a pressure from its concept on the audience. Because Warmerdam has no intentions of making this an easy film to process, the eccentric and often abstract nature of the film has a tendency to bury a viewer with the ideas of the film. It's never clear what direction it's going in or in character motivations, but it is always there, weighing you down with every action and every moment.
It's almost like having someone cling to you and very slowly starts to drag you down from their own weight where each passing moment they're becoming heavier and heavier. For better or worse, "Borgman" is thick with atmosphere from the plot, the concept and from Warmerdam's non-linear approach to telling the story. Oddly, it also felt like the movie had emotional triggers to it even though technically didn't. From my own personal viewing experience I was unbelievably fucking angry, particularly with Marina, even though there was no real reason for me to be. Or was there?
One of the dividing elements of "Borgman" is that reason and motivation is never made clear. Is the destruction of this family the result of them allowing Borgman into their house? A man who could very well be an inhumane entity of some kind with the intentions of possessing and corrupting them through demonic-like forces? Or is it something much simpler than that where the wanton destruction of the household was brought on by basic human faults?
The one thing that is made clear in the movie is that it does exist as a commentary and borderline satirical take on the upper-class white family -- an existence many idolize but one that is weak and susceptible to corruption where it can easily be destroyed by the presence of something different and unfamiliar. Marina seems remorseful over her family's, as well as her own, prosperity when she first gazes upon Borgman -- a man who resembles what most would consider to be lower-class. This remorse turns into guilt which the drives Marina to subconsciously bring about the downfall of the life she and her husband, Richard, have built.
On the other hand though, who is Borgman really? Is he nothing more than a sociopath who, along with his companions, are able to seduce an entire household through charm and deceit? Certain elements of the movie like to hint that there is more to Borgman than his outer appearance would have you believe. Such as the fact that our first introduction to the character is him being chased out of his underground lair by a priest. Or that he watches over Marina during her nightmares which, when she awakens from, is never able to separate her dreams from reality. Something that occurs only after Borgman has entered their home. Is he simply an odd person who enjoys watching women sleep or is he controlling Marina's dreams to break her down mentally? Because his presence causes such drastic changes in the characters, almost instantaneously, there seems to be an undeniable relation between Borgman and the beast in the story that he tells to the children.
Again though, what is the answer? I honestly don't know. What I do know is, or rather, what I believe to be true, is that Warmerdam didn't want their to be a clear answer and that he wanted the viewers to draw their own conclusions. Copout? No, not really. The point of "Borgman" is never to understand why but rather to exist as an abstract form of social examination in the guise of a home invasion movie. Was it a satanic spell that brought the end to a once happy and prosperous family, or was it because of guilt and dissatisfaction from societal conformity exploited by a sociopath? Perhaps it's both. With heavy layers of metaphysical themes and social commentary, it's a movie that goes way beyond its home invasion setup and is something much more. As such "Borgman" is a movie that I think could be on the same level as the films of Luis Buñuel or Pier Paolo Pasolini's "Teorema".
With that being said, "Borgman" had sort of a polarizing affect on me; it's not a movie I see myself returning to at any point in the near future but it was a great movie and an interesting experience, to say the least. It has a top notch production quality to it (it's a beautiful movie to look at) and has a solid cast but what kept me engaged is that it's such an odd movie. And I'm not strictly referring to its themes. Rather, I often had no idea what direction the story or the characters were going in and because the movie has a strange and dark sense of humor to it. Even though you're under pressure from the movie and trying to make sense out of each turn it takes, there are just some moments that are so genuinely shocking or bizarre, that you'll laugh. There are a few different elements at play within the movie, such as drama and even a bit of horror, but it's that black-comedy that works so well with that abstract concept of the movie.