Reading “Borgman”

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By Alec Julian

Reworking Haneke’s FUNNY GAMES, Alex van Warmerdam crafts BORGMAN — an unsettling, wry postmodern fairy tale that lends itself to Marxist and moralist readings.

The pseudo-biblical opening shot of the film is a title card: “And they descended upon the earth to strengthen their ranks.” Suddenly and then gradually that is indeed what we come to see.

An armed religious clique trudges into the woods descending upon an innocuous bearded Camiel Borgman (Jan Bijvoet), who’s apparently living in a kind of nasty, dirty hole in the ground. After texting his cronies to no avail, Borgman flees.

Like a zany vagabond or an angel out of Genesis, Borgman goes door-to-door requesting a bath entitled to a traveler. Richard (Jeroen Perceval), a high-wired television executive who’s oddly at home during the day, entertains the odd stranger long enough before blowing his fuse.

Richard nearly kills Borgman for vaguely suggesting that his wife, Marina (Hadewych Minis), was unfaithful or untruthful. Thereafter, Marina, taking pity over the brutalized vagrant allows him to stay in the outhouse in the sprawling garden of her family’s super-modern suburban home.

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After recuperating, Borgman decides to leave, but Marina, whose grown fond of him, exhorts him to stay.

Let the fun and games begin!

Unlike Haneke’s German and American FUNNY GAMES, Warmerdam’s film isn’t a conscious commentary on popular horror film genre, viz. American slasher cinema. As such, BORGMAN eschews tropes that typify everything from the SIXTH SENSE to PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, maintaining a low key, even-keeled score and saving the creepiest happenings for the daytime. There’s a dash of magic and murder aplenty, but the majority of that isn’t jolting.

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The movie does offer a caustic commentary on the bourgeoisie. Richard buys Marina a big diamond necklace and she’s “annoyed.” He comforts her by saying, “It’s not your fault. We were born in the west, which is affluent.” Later Marina scolds her daughter for ripping apart a teddy bear, describing the sequence of events that led to her procurement of the toy: a child overseas, getting paid meagerly, worked on that bear, she says.

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While Marina is housefrau dealing with liberal guilt by chugging wine and splotching canvases, Richard has no problem with abusing beggars and discriminating against minorities. By deduction, their three perfect children are de facto ignored. That’s what for the nanny’s for. Yet, even the nanny’s (Sara Hjort Ditlevsen) missing-in-action, beleaguered by mysterious headaches, leaving the kids with Borgman. Like the piped piper, Borgman entrances and mystifies the children (most notably Isolde played by Elve Lijbaart) with grotesque tales.

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When, through a turn of events, Borgman becomes the family’s landscaper, he ropes in his nomadic band of cronies into a massive gardening project that evokes a kind of hostile takeover, albeit a demodernizing one. Posing as a doctor, one of Borgman’s friends tells Marina that her “kinder” have fallen ill because of modernity, that “they’re too inundated by television and social media.”

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In the vein of Haneke’s movie, BORGMAN ends exactly as it should, leaving the backstory murky and the future fairly bleak. Consciously blending supernatural elements into his suburban pastiche, Warmerdam has succeeded in making an original picture.

Alec Julian is a Los Angeles based writer. Follow him @PaparazziPorn. 

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