Friday, February 14, 2014

Borgman (2013)

This disturbing little Dutch sleeper creeps up quite surreptitiously and affects your mind to numbing effects much like the eponymous lead character of this flabbergasting film does to his hapless victims.

In a rather strange and almost surreal opening sequence we see a bearded vagrant by the name of Camiel Borgman (Jan Bijvoet) being hunted and chased out of his underground lair by two men, a dog and a priest with a shotgun! There are a couple more drifters as we find out. 

Obviously there is an answer to why the priest is hunting Camiel down, but director Alex Van Warmerdam is a sly genius who will never give you straight answers to this shocking beginning. He will only start unleashing his series of clues, as the main plot unfolds when Camiel escapes from the dense woods into a nice bourgeois locality, like a beast thrown out from his comfort zone, and into the urban lands. 

Much like any home invasion film, a la Michael Haneke's sadistic "Funny Games" (1997), this rather smooth-talking wanderer gains entry into the home of the beautiful Marina (Hadewych Minis) and her TV producer husband Richard (Jeroen Perceval). Marina seems to empathize with Borgman from the word go and offers him a chance to bathe, gives him food and shelter for a while after her husband showers violent blows on him, but only to protect her honour, no less! 

Little does anyone know, though, that this one gesture of kindliness is only the first nail in the coffin for this nice looking upper class family with three beautiful children, and that their guest has no intentions of leaving. He has a sinister masterplan up his sleeve to weave a deadly web and irreversibly impact their lives psychologically. By this point, some readers may think this is Alex Van Warmerdam's rendition of "Teorema", that excellent 1968 Pier Paolo Pasolini film. But well, prepare to be surprised, and find out that this is not a rip off by a long shot, as the story takes unpredictable turns and in fact has you on the edge about not only what would happen next, but also have you screaming out loud "What on earth is really happening?" 

"Borgman" (2013) is as original as they come and it is here to cement its status as a new cult thriller that subtly fuses the classic aesthetic of European art-house minimalism with more extreme genres like psychological dramas and supernatural elements. Yet what is served in the end is an allegorical mind-bender that has its roots in Christian mythology!

There are chances that initially the viewer may be taken quite aback regarding the happenings on screen. The first half an hour may simply seem indigestible to some much like earlier home invasion films. But then the plot thickens and nothing seems as ordinary as on the surface. There are dreams and nightmares that seem all too real.

There appears to be some kind of psychological manipulation leading to mood swings and hostility. And before we know it, an 'X' marks a spot almost miraculously! No spoilers, but there are indeed forces other than the real and tangible ones at work here, when the mysterious, mangy stray dogs appear, much to our amazement. There also appears to be some sort of chemical treatment at work.

If all of this sounds utterly vague, then it is just as well. That is a bit part of what you are in for, as normal events take turns that lead to almost unreal events. It makes little sense as to Borgman's motivations and his sense of purpose. But underneath this complex exterior is yet another attack on the upper class ego and an arrogance that is born out of the affluent lifestyle. Pride cometh before a fall they say, and this proverb would fit very well within the context of the film. But the distinction between good and evil is blurred here, given the aforementioned mythological angle.

So those well versed with the religious texts can immediately read into the names and connect with the more larger themes, bolstered by the biblical quote in the beginning "And they descended upon the earth to strengthen their ranks". So could "Borgman" be an allegory of Camael, one of the seven archangels who supposedly led the forces that expelled Adam and Eve from the garden of Eden ( The point in question not entirely farfetched, for Camiel is later appointed as a gardener with the family in their plush abode (a symbolic garden of Eden)! Coincidence? Perhaps, depending on how you look at it.

And therein lies one of the key aspects that make "Borgman" a marvelous cinematic puzzle-box and a true winner; the inherent ambiguity of it all. The viewer only gets to see bits and pieces of what actually happens. There are no clear answers. But clues are thrown about in a manner that would give way to multiple interpretations. It is up to the viewers to discern in a way that fits their sense of reasoning.

For an ambitious film that boasts of such an intriguing and complex plot, Warmerdam exercises tremendous restraint and refrains from making a big hullabaloo about anything at all. It ends as calmly as it starts but the audiences are left with anything but a sense of calm, for they are subjected to something so downright challenging, it is difficult to not have your brain cells rapidly stimulated in trying to work out what just happened to you through this cinematic offering.

"Borgman" is a masterpiece; a brilliantly acted, bone-chilling, haunting piece of cinema that is bold, disturbing and ultimately rewarding yet has been criminally overlooked in the recent lot of European cinema. It really needs to come out in the open. Do yourself a favour and watch this film! Now!

Score: 10/10


  1. Great review!! This was one of my fav films that I saw last year.

    1. Thanks stefaneechi...
      Indeed..a great film that is surely a top favorite of last year.

      Thanks for the comment.