A hobo and a charmer, Camiel Borgman (a restrained and compelling Jan Bijvoet) may seem sympathetic at the start of writer-director Alex van Warmerdam’s bizarre but compelling Borgman, but then again, Ruth Gordon seemed too lovable to be in the business of buying babies for the devil. Although Borgman can accurately be described as part psychological horror movie, part modern fairy tale, it unfolds within a world so realistic it’s jarring and genuinely creepy like Rosemary’s Baby. On the surface, it’s something of a recruitment film, opening with the statement, “and they descended upon the earth to strengthen their ranks”, but it’s a film most interested in playing mind games, whether between the characters or with the audience.
Alex van Warmerdam carefully stacks the deck to ensnare our sympathies for the itinerant Borgman. We meet him when he’s peacefully asleep among his books in his underground lair about to become prey to three men, including a priest. These attackers seem particularly dangerous having been introduced from the start as owners of a snarling dog, before we watch one of them don big black boots and a gun in preparation for the hunt. The wit and aplomb with which Borgman escapes through a series of underground tunnels, warning his fellow subterranean dwellers along the way, is thrilling – van Warmerdam keeps the camera moving alongside Borgman during the chase – and succeeds in making you complicit in his escape. As he runs through the lush woods, a road and a gas station drift into the corner of the frame, transporting Borgman out of the wild and into civilization.
Much like Jeremy Saulnier’s disheveled and scraggly-haired hero in Blue Ruin, Borgman’s first order of business is to find somewhere to have a bath. But without the luxury of a relative to mooch off, he relies on the kindness of strangers, so he knocks on doors to begs for hospitality. He eventually finds himself in a complex of modern suburban houses, the sort you’d find in an architectural digest. After spotting a woman, Marina (Hadewych Minis), in the window of one of them, he tries knocking on the door. When her husband (Jerome Perceval) answers and Borgman claims to know Marina, her husband responds violently, beating Borgman to a pulp for the intrusion. But this only makes Marina sympathetic to Borgman’s plight. Before long, we wonder if this wasn’t part of his plan all along; Borgman might have even had a hand in ensuring the husband’s overreaction.
So begins Borgman’s careful manipulation of this upper-middle-class family. Wracked with guilt, Marina secretly lets him bathe and puts him up in the guest house. This temporary home often acts like a backstage: he’s always watching the goings-on of Marina’s family through the windows, and even his friends turn up to catch the show. We also get the sense that Borgman is putting on an act, and not just because he seems to be making nightly naked visits to Marina’s room to tamper with her dreams. He’s disturbingly interested in entertaining Marina’s two children with extraordinary stories, and he’s a hit with them. When he decides to leave, she begs him to stay, and he explains only if he gets to “play”.
He wants to insinuate himself into her life as her gardener, but he has to get rid of her current gardener first. And it’s here where we start to understand he comes from an unscrupulous clan, skilled in killing and manipulation, although why remains a mystery for some time. Their particular methods and rites are both very creepy and darkly funny in their sheer strangeness. When Borgman returns to her as a clean-shaven prospective gardener – unrecognizable to her husband – the roles begin to reverse. After playing the needy man just long enough to spark Marina’s interest, as the gardener, he’s cold and distant.
Many of my colleagues have focussed on how carefully van Warmerdam builds this strangely off-kilter world that is realistic yet eerie, and this is certainly part of the film’s appeal. There’s a detailed mythology at work that we only get small glimpses of throughout: putting the pieces together is part of the fun. But, for me, it’s the depth of the mind games, which Marina mistakes for courting, that really struck me. It’s also stunningly and formally shot, with the characters a small blip in an expansive frame. This is an utterly unique and taut film that expands and transcends its genre: an appreciation of dark humour, and not a love of horror or fables, is all you’ll need to enjoy it.