Film Title: Borgman
Dir: Alex van Warmerdam
The Mystery Box is a storytelling mechanism that’s been used by several filmmakers through the ages but mastered by very few of them. It’s essentially a way to present a seemingly random series of events in a film and confound the viewer completely, making him guess what is going on till the big finale. JJ Abrams utilised the concept in the opening season of Lost and while marketing many of his own films like Cloverfield and Super 8. British filmmaker Ben Wheatley used the technique brilliantly in his Kill List. The latest film to take the concept to another level is the Dutch thriller Borgman.
Directed by Alex van Warmerdam, Borgman is 2013’s Dutch Oscar entry that was also nominated for the Palm d’Or at Cannes. The film has the mystery driven tone of Wheatley’s Kill List with the bitter social commentary of the Greek film Dogtooth, and the end result is two hours of awkward thrills. The best way to approach the film is by having next to no knowledge of the plot — it’s the only way the Mystery Box works.
The film stars Jan Bivoyet as a shaggy, unkempt man named Borgman who, after being chased by a priest with a shotgun, escapes from his underground home in the jungle. He lands at the doorstep of a rich, pretentious married couple in a massive home at the edge of the forest, and for reasons unknown, manipulates everyone living in it.
With that setup presented with a sly grin, Warmerdam builds up the plot at slow burn, developing a very sinister atmosphere inhabited by highly unreliable characters. The man of the house, a rich CEO starts becoming irritable and violent, his happily married wife starts suspecting him of something even she isn’t sure of, the children develop a bond towards the stranger, the gardener disappears, bodies start to pile up at the bottom of a lake.
For 95 per cent of its runtime we have no idea what is going on and what Borgman’s intentions are. A film with that much of a buildup would rely heavily on its end reveal and at some point you start to believe Borgman would under-deliver. However Warmerdam takes the mystery to such absurd and hilarious levels that by the end it doesn’t matter what the point is. It just becomes more fascinating to see the characters break down and descend into utter madness.
Borgman is seemingly an evil presence in the house but Warmerdam makes us wonder if he actually is a bad guy. There are scenes where Borgman stares at the wife while she sees dreams of her husband beating her up — we never know whether these are her memories or Borgman manipulating her mind. Borgman also has two minions who kill people, bury their heads in buckets of concrete and send them to the bottom of a lake. They also seemingly turn into hounds, but even this is just hinted, they’re never shown shape shifting. All this makes Borgman reminiscent of Count Dracula, and props to Bivoyet for taking a fresh turn into a clichéd character.
Warmerdam has said that he would never explain the film but it is not so difficult to see through its dense layers. In parts it’s a brutal takedown of the infirmity of the modern man and in others it’s a simple film about ‘belonging’ as a species on Earth. And it drives home its statements in a weird, darkly funny way. The ending will leave you in a somber and reflective mood though, but with a new found interest in contemporary Dutch cinema.
Mihir fadnavis is a film critic and certified movie geek who has consumed more movies than meals