“BORGMAN” (TIFF Movie Review)
Dutch filmmaker Alex Van Warmerdam’s modern-day mythical black comedy BORGMAN was scooped up amidst much Cannes buzz by Drafthouse films earlier this year and just made its North American debut at TIFF, where Fango caught it yesterday. A strange and feisty film whose horror affiliations are more existential than overt, BORGMAN is about a handful of divine shit-disturbers, led by the title character, who turn the life of a suburban couple upside down.
A fantastic opening sequence sets up its mysterious conglomerate as either renegade subversives or vampiric characters who sleep in earthy, underground dens; they are being hunted, and clearly not for the first time. Chased from their dugouts, they take off into the woods in different directions, obviously old hands at having to disperse and regroup.
While all characters (including one played by director Alex van Warmerdam) will be re-introduced later—often in hilarious ways that don’t end well for their human counterparts—we follow the long-haired, skeletal and disheveled Camiel Borgman (played by Jan Bijvoet, who Fantasia Festival viewers may remember as a very different character type in THE BROKEN CIRCLE BREAKDOWN), who attempts to insinuate himself into the home of a young couple who live on the edge of the forest. Initially sympathetic to the assumed “vagrant,” the wife Marina (Hadewych Minis) takes him in, allowing him some civilized ablutions—a bath, a shave—before hiding him out in their back shed. But her charitable bourgeois curiosity eventually turns to arousal as she finds herself seductively drawn to the stranger, who assures her that only if she finds a way for him to live openly in the house will he acknowledge her desires.
Disguising him as an expert landscaper responding to their job posting (after a riotous montage of Camiel’s crack-team sabotaging any hope of competition), Camiel is officially welcomed into the family. He amuses himself with a manipulative game of emotional torture that has the increasingly lovelorn Marina throwing herself at him to no avail, and she becomes more unravelled by the minute while her husband remains oblivious. Amidst a gleeful anarchy, the film’s deadpan comedic timing and many tableaux of absurdist composition also offer up some mesmerising moments of stillness, most notably a backyard recital that is oddly breathtaking.
Like a perverse, nihilistic hybrid of Pasolini’s oft-referenced TEOREMA and Wim Wenders’ WINGS OF DESIRE, BORGMAN also taps into that universally mythic notion of the catalytic “the stranger” who shows up, disrupts order, and then splits the scene leaving a rash of questions in his wake. It’s an age-old story because it works, because it reminds us of the necessity of a good shake-up—even if in genre contexts, the shake-up has its casualties.