Symbolism and juxtaposition can be truly powerful elements when it comes to the art of filmmaking. In recent years, mainstream filmmakers have felt the need to bash audiences over the head with nearly every revelation. While viewers get closure, it denies the opportunity for an interesting discussion after the credits are done rolling. After all, who doesn't respect a filmmaker who challenges moviegoers? Isn't that what art is supposed to do? Well, that's exactly what writer/director Alex van Warmerdam achieves in his newest motion picture Borgman. Not only was it the official submission of the Netherlands to the Oscars for the "Best Foreign" category, but it's the first Dutch motion picture in thirty-eight years to be screened at the Cannes Film Festival. Borgman is a feature worthy of the attention.
After a vagrant by the name Camiel Borgman (Jan Bijvoet) escapes from a dangerous situation, he comes upon a house where he claims to have been medically treated by homeowner Marina (Hadewych Minis). Her husband, Richard (Jeroen Perceval), denies the stranger entry into his home. Marina sympathetically, yet secretly, allows him to temporarily stay in the guest shed in the backyard. With his presence, the upper-class family's lives begin turning into a psychological nightmare that could tear them apart.
The film gets off to a strange start, as Camiel is hunted by a priest with a shotgun and two other men carrying different weapons. The audience is placed in the middle of this tension that we know nothing about. You'll find this confusion to be associated with a large majority of the film. Borgman requires you to read in between the lines for the feature's entire duration. Absolutely nothing is spoon fed to the viewer, as writer/director Alex van Warmerdam treats his audience as a group of intelligent individuals. If you think that this movie has been weird thus far, you're in for a real surprise. The screenplay maintains a sense of ambiguity, as it keeps us in the dark as to what will happen next. This piece doesn't play by any of the rules that one would expect it to. Borgman progressively becomes more complex, which quickly stirs up a large amount of intrigue. This even holds true for the character disposition, as we continue to learn more about them. There are clear changes occurring within Marina, Richard, and their children, as they all begin with the presence of Camiel and an odd group of his contacts.
Borgman's first piece of social commentary that makes itself known is the separation between the rich and the poor. Camiel lives underground in the forest, while Marina and Richard live in a clean and modern house. As beautiful as it is, this house is just as superficial and cold as these people are within it. It isn't until Camiel appears do these characteristics begin to show themselves. A large portion of the plot is told from the perspective of Marina. She begins to have horrific nightmares with motivations and disturbing thoughts that seep into her consciousness. Before she wakes up, we're introduced to the striking image of a naked Camiel sitting on top of her, only running out of the room right before she wakes up. This scene instantly lends itself to numerous possibilities, including the fact that he continues to show characteristics seen within a mare (an evil spirit in Germanic folklore). Borgman offers many possible insights into writer/director Alex van Warmerdam's perspective on religion and mythology, as he actively intertwines them in order to provide a truly immersive piece of filmmaking.
This is one of the most unique aspects of the film. It introduces so many different concepts and emotions, that it doesn't fit into any single genre. While this is most certainly a thriller, it's also a drama, as well as a horror film. One could compare certain elements to pictures such as Funny Games and other "home invasion" flicks, although this time, the torture is all done psychologically. You never know who you can trust, as Borgman continues to keep the twists and turns coming. However, once you reach the end of the second act, the pacing comes to a halt. While it never becomes dull, the overall flow would most certainly benefit from a slight increase in the pacing. Fortunately, the feature picks itself back up in the third act, just in time for the climax of the plot. This is when all madness breaks out, as the audience is left to investigate what has truly happened and what will be left of them. Borgman feels like a puzzle that we might not ever realize in its entirety, but it sure makes for a fascinating discussion.
Given the film's complex layers, every performance counts. Even one rotten actor could ruin the entire flow. Fortunately, Borgman is in very capable hands. Jan Bijvoet delivers a hypnotizing performance as Camiel Borgman. This is a very mysterious role, where the audience constantly has a feeling that something sinister is happening within his mind. Bijovet is as eerie and authentic as could be. Hadewych Minis is absolutely convincing as Marina. For a character that requires such a wide dynamic of emotions, Minis does a good job at keeping the transitions fluid, as she continues to be manipulated under Camiel's spell. There isn't a single weak link here, as each performance aids in delivering this unusually engrossing cinema experience.
There's a lot to be said about writer/director Alex van Warmerdam's visual design. When such a film utilizes its visual influences, it can create a powerful audiovisual experience. The camerawork implies that we're trapped in these situations with this upper-class family, as the majority of the feature is captured with two or more actors, who fit perfectly into the frame. As the film progresses, it feels as if we have less and less space, as we become just as confined as our characters. However, the skillful use of camerawork and color leads to many scenes feeling as if a classic painting came to life. There's a lot to admire here, as the filmmaker has clearly put a lot into the visual design.
From a distance, Borgman appears to leave its viewers in the dark for nearly the entire running time. However, if you look a bit closer, you'll see that there are many puzzle pieces scattered about, which are left for us to put together. Writer/director Alex van Warmerdam doesn't spoon feed us. The feature has a highly intelligent sense of filmmaking with a strong use of symbolism. Borgman is a truly odd spectacle that digs its way deep under the skin and causes us to question everything that we know about character and plot progression. Borgman gives arthouse moviegoers a real reason to head to the cinemas again. Highly recommended!