Cannes 2013 Review – Borgman

A 38-year Dutch drought on the red carpet ended last night, when Alex van Warmerdam's eighth feature film Borgman became the first film from The Netherlands since Jos Stelling's Mariken van Nieumeghen to play in competition in Cannes. Infused with his signature deadpan humor, albeit of a somewhat darker streak than his previous outings (probably 2003's Grimm aside), and characters that reflect everyday people with something just a little off, the film is certainly the most original entry vying for the Palme d'Or. Not that it will win (for that, its flaws are too apparent), but with the sun also finally coming out on Sunday, Borgman gave the festival just the right jolt of energy to kick us all into the second week. Comparisons to Haneke (especially to Funny Games), Lanthimos, and even David Lynch have already been thrown around, but this is typical Van Warmerdam all the way (if you want to compare, at least say Kaurismäki dark), a man with a singular style he has been perfecting with every film.

The film opens with a striking scene that immediately sets the tone: a three-man hunting party, led by a priest, sets out into the woods to look for Camiel Borgman (Flemish actor Jan Bijvoet) and his companions Pascal and Ludwig, the latter played by Van Warmerdam himself. After living in underground hideouts, Borgman is forced out by a spear that almost skewers him. He warns his two followers as he flees. It's an ominous start to a film that piles mystery onto mystery while solving few of them, rendering the film open to multiple interpretations. At the press conference Van Warmerdam stressed that there is no meaning in many of the film's events, and left it up to the viewer to attribute some meaning to it. While this can be an easy out for a director not having much to say, in Borgman this never irritates. Just who is the enigmatic central character, and why does he do what he does? Food for thought and a starting point for interpretation.

After the opening sequence, Borgman wanders into a well-to-do neighborhood to ask people if he can take a bath. At one of the homes, the man of the house is not amused by this question, and upon Borgman's insistence that he knows his wife, the man, a television producer named Richard (Jeroen Perceval) gives Borgman a severe beating. The wife, Marina (Hadewych Minis), takes pity on the vagabond, and offers him food and shelter (and the requested bath!). From then on, Borgman slowly takes over control of the household, later joined by his companions, entrancing the women while keeping Richard out of the know. Especially Marina is growing more and more attracted to this strange man, and does not back down from having Borgman replace their own gardener (perhaps because she doesn't know this involves killing said gardener). The children and the Lolita-esque Danish nanny (Sara Hjort Ditlevsen) are also brought into the fold, and slowly but surely the destruction of their perfect suburban life is put into motion.

As stated, Van Warmerdam keeps the character of Borgman a cipher, never revealing who or what he is. Is he meant to be a manifestation of the devil? The opening title card ("And they descended upon the earth to strengthen their ranks," not a Biblical quote as far as I know) and the following priest-led hunt seem to suggest something along those lines, and Borgman's abilities to influence people give off a vibe of supernatural powers, but it is never made explicit. Jan Bijvoet is perfectly cast in the role, his light voice combined with his Flemish accent (a more gentle sounding dialect of Dutch) creating a disarming demeanor that people are initially taken with. He uses this demeanor to pit the characters against each other and bring the malice lying beneath the surface of this bourgeois environment into the open. Ever critical of the bourgeoisie, an often-recurring theme in his work, Van Warmerdam only every so often lays these criticisms on thick, mainly in the dialogue of Richard. As such, Perceval is the weakest link in an otherwise excellent cast (with again a wonderful child performance by Elve Lijbaart as the youngest child, an ongoing feature of this festival), simply by being given very little nuance. In contrast, Bijvoet and Minis excel in the two main roles, and the supporting adults have gleeful fun with their wicked characters. Special mention should go to Annet Malherbe (the director's wife and longtime collaborator) and Eva van de Wijdeven, who play the two 'cleaners' in Borgman's outfit (think Harvey Keitel as The Wolf in Pulp Fiction). A film on just these two would probably be a dark delight to watch.

The problem with the film is that it loses steam and direction in the last third. While the opening setup and the ensuing power plays by Borgman to gain influence over the family are arrestingly painted and often morbidly funny, Van Warmerdam falls into a trap that he has fallen in before. The film has pacing issues, some scenes drawn out or even included for no apparent reason, and an inability to wrap things up, leaving us with an ending that makes us unsure what we just saw, or if it really was any good. Some might call that enigmatic, and Borgman can certainly kick off a lot of discussion of what it all meant (or what we think it meant, dixit Van Warmerdam), but you can't help but feel that a rework on the script and some restraint by the director might have resulted in a more perfect satire. At times sinister and delightful, but ultimately slightly disappointing.