“Borgman” is a strange movie, but its strangeness is matter-of-fact, even casual. It’s not the kind of strangeness that draws attention to itself and says, “Look how strange this is!” (That’s the Tim Burton method.) If you were flipping channels and saw a scene out of context, you might not realize there was anything particularly unusual about “Borgman” at all.
But make no mistake, this is a baffling, bemusing story, something like “Funny Games,” “What About Bob?” and a biblical parable about evil, all of it conveyed by writer-director Alex van Warmerdam with deadpan humor and an oblique sense of the sinister. His penchant for depicting things that would seem to require further explanation, then not giving it to us, can be maddening, so you have to stop waiting for literal answers, consider the allegorical ones, and enjoy the daftness.
It begins with a bearded, disheveled man who’s eventually named Borgman (Jan Bijvoet) being rousted from his elaborately furnished underground dirt bunker in the forest by three angry men (including a priest) from a nearby town. Evading capture, he warns two friends (colleagues?) hiding in spider holes elsewhere in the woods, and disappears into an upscale suburban neighborhood, where he goes door to door asking if he can take a bath. So there’s that.
He starts insinuating himself into the lives of an affluent family where the wife, Marina (Hadewych Minis), is an abstract painter with a lot of white liberal guilt, and the husband, Richard (Jeroen Perceval), is an aggressive and humorless business bro. They have three cherubic young blond children, a Danish nanny (Sara Hjort Ditlevsen), and a gorgeous modern home. By degrees, Borgman comes to be involved with them, parlaying Marina’s sympathy for him into a residency in the guest house.
Borgman has all the appearance of a harmless hobo, but we know he’s not to be trusted. What keeps us off-balance is not knowing what his game is, whether he’s whimsical, murderous, or something else. He wields some kind of power over Marina’s dreams (but only when he squats naked over her while she sleeps; don’t ask), and uses it to exploit an existing crack in her and Richard’s marriage — yet he doesn’t seem to be interested in stealing Marina away. He tells the children grim folk tales, catching the interest of solemn-faced little Isolde (Elve Lijbaart) in particular. Something’s off about her.
Adding to our uneasy amusement: we get the sense that Borgman has done all of this before. When he needs to manipulate things to his favor, he calls on his accomplices — the two men from the spider holes at the beginning and a couple of professionally dressed women — to play various roles, ranging from clownish to deeply nefarious. They seem to have a pretty good system in place. (Who they are, exactly, and what their affiliation is are the kind of questions there’s no point in asking.)
Van Warmerdam’s style is detached, like he’s aloof from the characters but halfway curious about them. That, and his judicious use of shocking violence (mostly unseen), reminds me of Michael Haneke. I also thought of “Dogtooth,” the insane 2009 Greek film about an isolated family. Van Warmerdam’s straight-faced presentation, eschewing musical underscore and other overt cues even when seemingly major events (like murder) are happening, makes the tone tantalizingly ambiguous. Should we be amused, nervous, or appalled? How serious is van Warmerdam? This seems like real life, but it seems like a fable, too.
Films like this, and Haneke’s work, and “Dogtooth” — casually surreal and dark, intentionally equivocal, punctuated with menace and meanness — can be divisive. Either you dig it or you don’t. If you don’t, “Borgman” will probably seem pointless and arbitrary, like a rambling, morbid joke without a punchline. But if you do find yourself on van Warmerdam’s wavelength, this humorous, subtly nightmarish tale could be the vigorous brain-boink you’ve been craving.
B+ (1 hr., 53 min.; Dutch with subtitles; )
Originally published at About.com.