Home Video Hovel: Borgman, by Josh Long
Alex van Warmerdam’s Borgman is a film about evil. It isn’t the obvious kind of evil – not the black hats from westerns of old. It doesn’t declare itself right away, if at all. It’s the kind of evil that grows quietly, and that spreads quickly when anyone allows it to take hold. It is personified, in this case, by a strange vagrant with a mysteriously enchanting way about him. He may seem harmless, but once given a foothold, his insidious plans come together quickly and powerfully. Drafthouse Cinema’s new blu-ray release of the film will give new audiences a chance to see this unique psychological thriller, which premiered at Cannes in 2013.
The film begins with Camiel Borgman (Jan Bijvoet) and his friends (associates? accomplices?) being chased by men intent on killing them. They seem to have settled into hiding places underground, but now awakened and on the run, they must formulate a new plan. Borgman begins by asking for a shower in the homes of strangers. When one of the strangers refuses, Borgman pushes further and further until the man beats him mercilessly. His wife Marina (Hadewych Minis) feels sorry for the vagrant, and allows him to stay in their guest cottage. However, Borgman is soon not satisfied with the cottage. He wanders into the main house, makes himself at home with the couple’s bathroom, appears to their children, even telling them stories. All without the knowledge of Marina’s husband, Richard (Jeroen Perceval).
Through charisma and perhaps some supernatural powers, Borgman wins Marina over and convinces her to let him become a deeper part of their life. He asks to replace their current gardener, and she agrees, unaware of the terrible fate she is pronouncing on the gardener. When Borgman reappears, cleaned up and ready for work, Richard is none the wiser. On the surface it seems like Borgman continues going about his work in the garden, but before long his strange friends become guests of the house, and hold an unusual sway with the children and their nanny. They continue their work on the garden and on the family, and ultimately exercise their control unopposed.
Borgman succeeds at creating the believable but haunting tone that accompanies its characters. There are few moments of sudden fear or surprise, because that isn’t the way that Borgman and his people operate. They are slow, steady, and determined. In this way, they exemplify the kind of evil that we allow in our lives, telling ourselves “it isn’t that bad.” Marina is initially motivated by compassion, but turns a blind eye when it seems like her “guest” is up to no good. Like a vampire, he can’t get in until he’s invited in, but once he is, he is bent on destruction.
Jan Bijvoet, who you might recognize from his supporting role in last year’s Broken Circle Breakdown, gives a fantastically weird, eerie performance. You can see why he seems likeable; you can even briefly feel like maybe he’s a victim. As his plans unfold, we grow more and more suspicious of him, simultaneously understanding that it is too late for the family to see what we see. As his power grows, he becomes more aloof, his true nature coming to light. Hadewych Minis delivers a beautifully tragic performance. We feel for her most when we can see that she isn’t even in control of her own thoughts and feelings. She fights for things she doesn’t want for reasons she doesn’t understand. She brings a deep sadness to the film’s conclusion.
The Blu-ray looks very nice but is weak on special features. The only offerings are trailers, a five minute reel of deleted scenes (which automatically plays all of them, there’s no way to choose a particular scene) and a booklet with a few interviews. Also, for some reason, the subtitles have descriptions of noises (e.g. doorbells, car engines, etc.) incorporated into them. This is the sort of thing that is normal for closed captioning, but totally unnecessary (and often frustratingly distracting) for subtitles. There appears to be no way to turn them off, unless you turn the subtitles off entirely, which isn’t going to work for you unless you speak Dutch. It’s a weird mistake (or an even weirder intentional choice) that I haven’t encountered before.
Borgman is a well shot film with an eerie tone and some excellent performances. Drafthouse Films seems to have a penchant for gritty or edgier material, and perhaps the dark psychological home invasion element is what brings them on board for this one. There’s fortunately more to the film than just the pulpier aspects; there is a discussion of evil (and more importantly the unwitting acceptance of evil) that leaves us with something to think about.