The offbeat Dutch thriller Borgman aspires to a deeper kind of profundity than it can adequately pull off. Coming down somewhere between a high minded home invasion thriller, a modern religious parable, an economic treatise, and outright surrealism, writer and director Alex van Warmerdam’s efforts amount to the kind of film that takes fifteen steps when only five would suffice. Buried somewhere in here is a kernel of a great idea that never fully takes shape. To the his credit, van Warmerdam doesn’t seem to care if anything takes shape or not since he’s simply ticking off points he wants to make on a checklist the audience isn’t allowed to see in advance, but overall that leads to a frustrating movie that should feel vital and bracing but simply ends up as a bit of a null set.
On the run after being rousted from his underground hideout in the woods by people who clearly want him dead, a vagrant by the name of Camiel Borgman (Jan Bijovet) makes his way to an opulent looking suburban home. Upon arriving and asking for a bath and nothing more, he’s beaten by Richard (Jeroen Perceval) and pittied by his wife Marina (Hadewych Minis). She agrees to help Camiel provided that he stay out of sight in a guest house and never disturbs her husband or their three young children in the main home. Camiel never seems to leave, always finding new ways to come back even after it seems like he has left for good.
It’s apparent that Camiel is scheming towards a greater endgame, but it’s never apparent what he’s aiming at. He’s clearly a wanted man who has various accomplices (or possibly disciples) that are willing to do his bidding to make things seem a bit more convenient than they are. Van Warmerdam doesn’t give many clues as to Camiel’s motives, but instead doles out little bits and pieces of the people within his orbit slowly. It’s not immediately apparent that Richard is a workaholic with a latent propensity for violence or that Marina is an internally suffering housewife and artist, and the obfuscation of character motives might be van Warmerdam’s strongest suit here. While the film is a mystery as to what’s going on, questioning the who and the why becomes far more engaging as the film continues.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t extend to the story in play. Wanting to approach the question of who we allow to be let into our comfort zones from numerous directions, van Warmerdam can’t quite peg down which direction he wants to go in. The pacing seems assured despite being kind of misplaced. It’s certainly overlong and overstuffed, sagging in some spots while occasionally doubling back on itself to repeat the obvious.
It’s “deliberately” laid out, not in the hack critic way of saying that the film is “slow” or “laborious,” but in that van Warmerdam has committed to constantly strengthening the tension on the rope he leads the audience with only to let it go slack for long periods before picking it back up. That would be fine if the film’s sense of horrific tension and ideas about liberal guilt carried throughout. Some sequences, while admittedly beautiful in their fleeting brutality (bodies heading to the bottom of a lake head first like lawn darts, Camile nakedly hovering over the couple as they sleep), are designed solely to add an atmosphere that the story and characters can’t supply on their own. It comes across over time as an empty sort of long con.
Take for example the family’s quite amusingly aloof English speaking Danish nanny (Sara Hjort Ditevsen). She seems like someone who would be adding more than simple comedic relief, but about halfway through van Warmerdam decides to give this character another almost tangential subplot involving her serviceman boyfriend that only chews up running time and contributes only ever so slightly to underlining the psychological decline of Richard and Marina. Ditto a lengthy aside where Camile attempts to usurp a gardening job at the estate, a scene that says all it needs to in about thirty seconds but extends it to about twenty minutes. These subplots are also filled with stabs at dark humour that are more interesting in terms of how they’re mounted on a visual level than how they have any sort of impact on the viewer.
Some films can pull this kind of leisurely storytelling by infusing these moments with a degree of subtext or plotting that can allow for such diversions. Borgman never does that often coming across as being very smart and quite amateurish in the same breath. After about seventy minutes or so, it’s clear that no questions being posed by van Warmerdam are going to be answered directly, but he’s also never given the audience a reason to care about looking within themselves to answer the film’s central and overt gambit. It starts off thoughtfully enough before becoming content to just aim for post-modernism (or as Moe from The Simpsons so eloquently put it, “weird for the sake of being weird”), and finally just running out of steam just as it should be getting somewhat exciting or at the very least philosophically engaging. I don’t have a problem with film’s not answering the question being posed for the audience. I do have a problem with films that don’t make me care about the question as soon as the film ends. For how the film constantly tries to make strives to push the boundaries of what’s possible in a genre film (particularly with the well done and unsettling way children are dealt with), it always comes across as more passionate than thought out; a side effect of the weak script and not necessarily of van Warmerdam’s direction.
The one thing that does constantly engage, however, is the performance of Bijovet. His Camile is a charming and potentially demonic rogue. While the character is intentionally written as a cipher, Bijovet can do wonders with a simple glance or a nod. In his hands, Borgman’s proclivity to lie, cheat, and steal his way to his final goal meshes nicely with the character’s appearance to be an indoctrinator of those around him to be somewhat dubious people. Maybe if we saw less of what he was capable of, the film built around the character would be a knock-out rather than a softly glancing blow.