Borgman feels like a cross between a fable and a nightmare, replete with all the illogic and inexplicable mystery therein.
How do I describe Alex van Warmerdam’s Borgman? A children’s fable as imagined by Michael Haneke? An exploration of a nightmare’s day job? A fear experiment conducted by Confuse-A-Cat, Ltd.? Borgman is one of the oddest, most unsettling, most boldly and strikingly bizarre films I have seen in a long while. It feels like a dream. You can suss out the details of the plot, but the true nature or motivations of the semi-human characters remain deliberately oblique. There is a scene wherein the film’s lead, a distressed mother named Marina (Hadewych Minis) wanders into a garage looking for Borgman (Jan Bijvoet). She encounters a lanky canine creature that stares at her with plaintive, animal eyes. She regards it with a mixture of fear and wonder. She asks the dog if it is Borgman. It turns out Borgman was standing behind her, but given the strange illogical universe we inhabit, she can be forgiven for thinking that people can simply transform into dogs. It’s that kind of imbalance that gives Borgman its eerie power.
Borgman is not entirely human. He wears a wild, unkempt beard, and carries the presence of a Krampus. When we first see him, he is living in an underground cave that he made himself. When a trio of locals hunt him down, he flees his cave, and alerts other nearby cave-dwellers of his plight. He wanders to a remote home somewhere outside of the city, but a home that could easily be on another planet, given how quiet and weirdly square and modern it is. Borgman knocks on the door and asks to bathe there. He is denied and beaten by the gruff patriarch of the home Richard (Jeroen Perceval), but secretly sneaked in the back by Marina, whom Borgman claims to know. It’s not long before Borgman is looking after the three children, and enlisting his imp-like retinue as gardeners, partly out of Richard’s sight, lurking about the hallways of this house like ghosts. Oh yes, and Borgman also sneaks into Marina’s bedroom at night and crouches on her chest like the creature in John Henry Fusili’s famous painting “The Nightmare.” Yes, he is somehow feeding her nightmares. It’s not long before Borgman’s retinue is also spiriting the children off to remote oubliettes to feed them mysterious drugs. This is in between bouts of murdering locals and encasing their heads in cement.
We never learn what these ghouls are up to, why they are killing people, why they want to insinuate themselves into Marina’s life, or what they hope to achieve. My best critical guess: They are embodiments of Eris, the Goddess of Discord.
Filmmaker David Lynch once said that he enjoys a good mystery, but has always felt let down by the solution to a mystery; for Lynch, known who dunnit was never as important as wondering, seeking, and becoming increasingly lost in an unknowable miasma of seemingly unconnected coincidences. I appreciate that notion, on full display in Borgman. I don’t want to know the true nature of the murderers, content to let them retain their immediate dramatic power through unknowable actions. There may even be something we immediately understand about Borgman and his pals through an ineffable sense of dream logic. We know what they want; they want to seal Marina and her children off from the world. They want to kill in a ritualistic fashion. They are monstrous in a primordial sense. They are child’s closet monsters grown into professionals.
Cinema is often touted as a storytelling medium, but I think it would be more accurate to say that it is a medium of abstraction; the more surreal and dreamlike a film, the more it is fully exploiting the cinematic format. It’s a medium that can make the intangible gut-wrenchingly real. Borgman is all of those things. It is a dream, a nightmare, a frustratingly opaque headscratcher, and an exhilaratingly terrifying experience.