You can tell from its disconcerting opening scene that Alex van Warmerdam’s BORGMAN is going to play out in a dark and uncompromising fashion, with something of a surreal edge.
Two woodsmen and a priest clearly mean business when they sharpen an iron stake, arm themselves with guns and head out with a dog into the woods. When they reach a clearing and hammer their way through the ground, what they find is unexpected – but at this stage not entirely beyond reason. A long-haired bearded man (Jan Bijvoet) is sleeping rough in a makeshift subterranean hide. Seemingly prepared for such a discovery, the tramp makes an emergency escape through a tunnel with the aid of some smoke bombs. What is a little more bizarre is that the man makes his way to other clearings, where camouflaged hatches are opened to reveal other ‘sleepers’ resting underground. It’s time for them to move on.
We never find out why the men are in hiding and sleeping rough (although ‘sleepers’ is an interesting way to describe them) or what they have done to provoke such a response from the inhabitants of their previous locality, but you could probably assume they’ve been involved in similar activities to those which subsequently play out. Not that the nature of those activities is in any way easy to determine or describe. Working alone, the bearded vagrant (is the Jesus look intentional?) approaches a number of expensive-looking houses seemingly at random, asking the owners if they will let him have a bath. Unsurprisingly, the man’s appearance means that his request is treated with suspicion if not outright disdain by some homeowners, and even with extreme violence in the case of one wealthy businessman, Richard (Jeroen Perceval). Taking pity on the tramp and appalled at the behaviour of her husband, his wife Marina (Hadewych Minis) puts the man up secretly in their summer house, nursing his wounds and letting him have the bath for which he has risked a beating. But his forbidden incursions into the house soon take a destabilising toll on the couple, their three young children and their Danish nanny.
Eventually, the man – with a haircut, a shave and a change of name to Camile Borgman – finds a way to maintain a legitimate presence, and a position of some influence in the house as a gardener. ‘Legitimate’ is perhaps not the best word to use in the circumstances, considering the horrible fate of the original gardener and his wife (and one unfortunate genuine applicant for the newly vacant post), but the destructive landscaping that the family’s extensive and immaculately groomed garden and ornamental pool undergoes is nothing compared to the violent upheaval that is experienced by the family themselves. Camile is assisted in his evangelical mission of purging and reeducation by a few “helpers”, two of which are Borgman’s fellow sleepers in the woods – Ludwig (director Alex van Warmerdam) Pascal (Tom Dewispelaere), and two other female members of the group (cell?) who have helped Borgman work this situation around to his advantage.
…[a] balance between the intellectual rigour of Haneke and Lynch’s wilfully perverse mining of the deep subconscious…
There are a few other filmmakers who come to mind when dealing in a somewhat surreal fashion with this type of subject, where an outsider or a stranger appears to propose a particularly violent threat towards the affluent middle-class lifestyle. The classic examples are clearly Pasolini’s TEOREMA (THEOREM), in which Terence Stamp’s enigmatic young man seduces and eventually destroys all that a bourgeois family hold dear, while Bunuel’s VIRIDIANA of course irreverently tramples all over middle-class social and religious values in a legendary scene where a group of vagrants cause havoc in the mansion of a wealthy landowner when invited in – out of misplaced kindness – by the family’s maid. In a more modern context, the sense of unsettling absurdity in Alex van Warmerdam’s feature occasionally brings to mind Giorgos Lanthimos’ DOGTOOTH.
You could see the figure of Borgman as an Lynchian expression of subconscious desires being let loose on the world, or see the film as a whole as a Haneke-like assault on middle-class complacency that is heading for self-destruction. But its balance between the intellectual rigour and pointed social critique of Haneke and Lynch’s wilfully perverse mining of the deep subconscious is probably less interesting than either extreme. On the other hand, operating in this middle ground does give rise to a certain dangerous ambiguity in BORGMAN. Is the ruthlessness of Borgman and his crew rooted in a need to extract the evil from our society – or do their own actions demonstrate evil incarnate?
Operating with this kind of ambiguity allows Borgman to avoid any explicit expression of such concepts as “evil” or “salvation”, while at the same time giving it a freedom to use surreal imagery and symbolism that isn’t tied to obvious meanings. This lack of familiar pointers might prove frustrating for some viewers, but since it never entirely strays beyond the realm of possibility, the technique introduces an element of worrying randomness into the order that the middle-class family rely upon. Those seemingly small slips – such as the nanny’s day off upsetting arrangements for taking the children to school, on a day when Richard has an important meeting – soon accumulate into something that can be perceived as more sinister. The uncertainty is clearly intentional: an anticipation of Haneke-like explosions of violence keep the viewer constantly on their guard. But this unpredictability also means that the viewer is denied the complacency of an easy decision as to where their sympathies lie.