Bored Man, by David Wester
Borgman opens with three men, including a very angry-looking priest, who head into the woods heavily armed. They arrive at a spot in the middle of nowhere and start stabbing a giant stake into a hollow place under the ground. This hollow contains an underground lair, the home of the disheveled Borgman, their target. He, it seems, is well-prepared for such a disturbance, and as they attempt to kill him, he makes his way into a hidden tunnel, but only after throwing a smoke bomb to put his attackers off further. After escaping from these people, he then alerts two other men who are also living in similar underground apartments that it’s time for the three of them to move on. The opening sequence, such an amazing and assured silent cinematic set-piece, works so well, I felt like every cell in my body had leaned forward to find out just what on earth could be going on here.
Borgman never answers this question to any degree of satisfaction. After this sequence, Borgman finds solace in an upper class home, compelling the mother of the family that lives there to help him out with a bath and a place to sleep. As his stay extends from one night into several days, and as he and his compatriots become more of a fixture in the house, their very presence seems to disrupt the ties that bind the family together. People’s hostilities come to the forefront; allegiances begin to fray. Why they fray doesnt quite come through, though. Borgman’s manipulations aren’t particularly convincing, and the actions of the characters in the house often seem inexplicable. The wife is a little too ready to help this stranger, the husband is a little too impotently angry, and one daughter is too inexplicably violent.
As the family’s relationships unravel, the film offers hints that there may be elements of the paranormal at play, or class-war allegory, or absurdist satire. It suggests many things but, like its main character, never really tips its hand as to what kind of game it’s trying to play. Scenes go by as characters engage in mysterious activities that read as important, dire, even mortally dangerous, but one never has a sense as to why anyone is doing anything. Eventually, absent any context and with no real understanding of who anyone was or what they were after, I grew tired of Borgman’s enigmas and wanted it to plant its feet and declare something.
Unanswered questions and enigmatic storytelling are usually not problematic to me (I’m a David Lynch fan), but, despite the top-notch production, I found this film to be more frustrating than intriguing, doubly so because the production really is great. Everything about Borgman is subtly presented. The direction, cinematography, editing, and acting are all suffused with an elegant, understated quality. What music there is is lightly applied. The shots in this film are all immaculately rendered, executed with a crisp specificity and control reminiscent of Haneke at times or Kubrick at others. Jan Bijvoet, as Borgman, delivers a very calculated and, frankly, cool performance that is unnerving in its quiet, matter-of-fact malevolence. I don’t doubt that I’ll think back to him simply nodding or politely prodding someone to a violent act many years down the road.
With all of this taken into account, there seems to be something very sharp and very smart working behind the surface. And yet, the end result is still an unsatisfying muddle. After that great opening, the film does not build so much as diffuse to its conclusion. Borgman ends on a moment of reflection, of one character recognizing the changes that have occurred in this family’s home during the film’s run time. And it is bracing to realize exactly what has transpired, the extent of the damage that Borgman and his friends have wrought. The lives of the characters in the film have been irrevocably changed, ruined, or even lost, but I felt nothing at all about their fate. They seemed to be pawns in a larger game, but I couldn’t tell you what was at stake in the game or whether the events of the film add up to any kind of import for the players. And with a cocky arch of an eyebrow, Borgman, the movie, isn’t telling anyone anything.