You have to appreciate a film festival that would put a movie as strange as Alex van Warmerdam’s Borgman in main competition. Though it often feels like the cast and director are making it up as they go along, it features memorable moments that are ultimately hard to shake.
Warmerdam aims to position itself as a kind of Occupy-ish revenge fantasy on the upper class. We first meet Borgman (Jan Bijvoet) at his starting point: literally a hole in the ground. He and two of his partners live in holes they dug with beds and caves underneath. But if you think that somehow is the key to everything, it isn’t. Perceptions are quickly formed and just as quickly dispelled about who Borgman and his wrecking crew really are. They might even be dogs for all we know. Yes, dogs.
You have to toss all preconceptions and watch the dream play out. It isn’t just any dream, but one of those bizarre, rambling, vivid dreams that startle you awake in a cold sweat — like a naked man straddling you, staring at you while you sleep making you dream terrible things about your husband as you’re being seduced by Borgman. That is but one of the recurring images that cling to the psyche.
Warmerdam approaches the surreal tale not with heavy drama — though there is a bit of Samuel Becket and Franz Kafka here — but with humor. The murders end up being mostly funny — until they aren’t. The Borgman story is any family’s worst nightmare — a “homeless” man shows up, asks to use the bath. Mayhem ensues. Funnily enough, Borgman has to be invited in, like a vampire, but he finds a way to manipulate the wife (Hadewych Minis) into doing just that.
Borgman doesn’t work alone; he has two females and two males who help him carry out his master plan, which I won’t spoil for you here. By the end, the main question remains mostly unanswerable. You can fill in the blanks with whatever makes sense to you but it’s just as easily to accept that it makes no sense whatsoever. The broad theme is a criticism of the lifestyle of well-to-do. The family is aware of their wealth but have decided not to feel guilty about it, though there are laments and speeches about exploiting slave labor in other countries just so we can buy toys and clothes.
But that’s a dangerous path to go down. If that’s all Borgman represents then you’re not that far from the ravings of Charles Manson and his family creepy crawling into rich homes. But that is not what Warmerdam is after. His is more satire, less cautionary tale. In an era where there are very few truly surprising films, Borgman is one of the rare movies that manages to find something entirely new to say, with original, oddly drawn characters. I suspect if Shakespeare were alive today, he’d appreciate those comic elements — because if this film reminded me of anything, style-wise, it’s the Shakesperean comedy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or perhaps As You Like it. The freedom to tell a story absurdly has mostly vanished. What audience conditioned to be literal-minded can put up with it? But Warmerdam touches his brush lightly, dipping often into violence and vulgarity, and sticking to its commitment from start to finish to never, for one second, make any sense.
The actors are appropriately poker-faced. The emotion, then, is left to those who have absolutely no idea what’s going on. Though the events on screen are just this side of horrifying, Warmerdam does not wish to horrify — creep us out, maybe, tickle us a little with oddly nonsensical dream spams disguised as a plot — but it never quite goes into torture porn territory.
One thing that is revitalizing about the Cannes Film Festival is the broad array of filmmaking on display. Thank goodness they don’t follow Hollywood’s rules about what can and can’t be done. Much of what you see here will make you squirm. But you’ll never be spoon-fed a feelgood, fantasy version of what life should be.
Borgman takes the notion of what life should be and he rips it out of the ground from its roots. It isn’t any wonder that in the beginning of the film a priest arms himself with a weapon and sets out with an angry mob to hunt down Borgman and his gang. Is Borgman the Devil? Is he the underclass? Is he nature? One thing it doesn’t have in common with Shakespeare — a tidy ending where everything works out best for everyone and all is right with the world. All is not right with the world, clearly.