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CANNES – The first Dutch feature in the main Cannes competition in 38 years, Borgman is laced with Alex van Warmerdam’s characteristically droll humor but sees the writer-director venturing into darker, more unsettling waters. A quirky study of the unrelenting grip of evil, the film is beautifully made, though stronger in its intriguing setup than its muddy resolution. Still, this is an engrossing and original work that should find an international niche.
Since making a mark in the Netherlands with his 1986 feature debut Abel and then cracking the festival circuit in 1992 with The Northerners, van Warmerdam has assembled a richly idiosyncratic body of work, most of which he also appears in with his wife Annet Malherbe. In films like The Dress, Little Tony and Grimm, he brings a deadpan observational style to seemingly ordinary lowlanders, subjecting them to absurd situations, sticky psychological challenges and simmering threats of violence.
“And they descended upon the earth to strengthen their ranks,” reads a quote at the start of Borgman. To the extent that its enigmas are explained, the film could be described as a cult recruitment thriller, with possible supernatural undercurrents. The presence of watchful hounds sauntering through the house where insidious intruders have established their domain vaguely recalls such demon-spawn classics as The Omen. But van Warmerdam mostly eschews standard genre trappings.
In the terrific opening, a priest and two other armed men stalk the woods where Borgman (Jan Bijvoet) is sleeping in a makeshift underground hideout. Narrowly dodging a massive spike to the head, he escapes through a burrow and warns his cohorts Pascal (Tom Dewispeleare) and Ludwig (van Warmerdam), resting, vampire-style, in similar dugouts.
Calling himself Anton and then later Camiel, bedraggled Borgman goes knocking on doors in an upscale residential area, asking to come inside and take a bath. He gets an abrupt refusal from hot-tempered businessman Richard (Jeroen Perceval) who then brutally beats him after Borgman insists that he knows the man’s wife, Marina (Hadewych Minis).
Production designer Geert Paredis has found a brilliant location for the sinister events that unfold, its seclusion in verdant surroundings reinforcing a vague kinship with Michael Haneke’s Funny Games. Richard and Marina’s home is a box-like compound of ultramodern hard-edged sterility on pristine grounds, photographed in crisply composed widescreen shots by Tom Erisman.
Feeling remorseful over her husband’s treatment of him, Marina secretly allows Borgman to clean up, giving him food and shelter in their guest cottage. The nod to Boudu Saved From Drowning seems intentional, but also a false clue as to where the film is headed. When Borgman makes a move to leave, a compulsion prompts Marina to beg the stranger to stay. Already intoxicated by him, she shares her ominous thoughts of dread with Richard, fretting that their life of privilege is unearned.
The film’s most gripping developments are in the central section in which Borgman quietly exercises his subliminal mind control over Marina, her three young children, and eventually, Richard. Ludwig and Pascal reappear, with the latter casting a spell on the kids’ Danish nanny Stine (Sara Hjort Ditlevsen).
There’s a gruesome caper feel to the action as Borgman takes over gardening duties on the property, enlisting the help of chilly female disciples Brenda (Malherbe) and Ilonka (Eva van de Wijdeven). The group’s disposal of the original gardener and his wife, along with a hapless applicant for the vacated groundskeeper position, involves a literal upending of the old cement shoes trick and provides some tasty gallows humor. The voluntary assistance of Marina and Richard’s angelic-looking youngest daughter Isolde (Elve Lijbaart) in eliminating a minor nuisance is both funny and disturbing.
While conventional narrative rules dictate that answers be supplied, van Warmerdam is content to keep piling on mysteries, such as the surgical interventions that make his new recruits instantly docile. A surreal performance interlude during which the intruders reveal their mantra as “I Am – We Are” seems more pretentious than illuminating. One can assume van Warmerdam might be getting at something about the precariousness of affluence and bourgeois complacency, but that’s debatable.
The slight abstruseness of the storytelling causes the tension to falter just as the director should be amplifying it. That weakness might have been remedied and the conflict heightened, for instance, if the vigilante hunters had resurfaced rather than disappearing after the opening scene. Instead, the assumption of total control by Borgman’s satanic sect is never really in doubt.
But while the film ultimately is not as satisfying as it promises to be for much of the duration, it remains bracingly creepy and off-kilter. Performances are solid throughout, particularly from Minis and Flemish actor Bijvoet. With a craggy-faced, sad-eyed seriousness that at times gives him a resemblance to Christoph Waltz, he makes a charismatic figurehead for the march of evil.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Competition)
Cast: Jan Bijvoet, Hadewych Minis, Jeroen Perceval, Sara Hjort Ditlevsen, Eva van de Wijdeven, Annet Malherbe, Tom Dewispelaere, Alex van Warmerdam, Elve Lijbaart, Dirkje van der Pijl, Pieter-Bas de Waard, Gene Bervoets, Mike Weerts, Ariane Schluter
Production companies: Graniet Film, Epidemic, Mollywood, DDF/Angel Films, NTR
Director-screenwriter: Alex van Warmerdam
Producer: Marc van Warmerdam
Director of photography: Tom Erisman
Production designer: Geert Paredis
Music: Vincent van Warmerdam
Editor: Job ter Burg
Costume designer: Stine Gudmundsen-Holmgreen
Sales: Fortissimo Films
No rating, 113 minutes.
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