According to Wikipedia, the Dutch surname “Borgman” is a compound word: “borg” (to take toll/to take money) and “man” (the person who takes it). This name certainly fits the title character’s role in this 2013 film by Dutch writer-director Alex van Warmerdam. Borgman’s (Jan Bijvoet) personal mission, it seems, is to exact a high price from anyone to whom he takes a dislike. Tailor-made for the roles of his victims are the members of an upper-middle class family that Borgman encounters in his wanderings.
The family’s career-obsessed, bigoted father figure, Richard (Jeroen Perceval), allows himself to be goaded into severely beating Borgman, who appears to be a homeless man. This act gives Borgman license to turn the family’s peaceful and privileged life into a psychospiritual hell that ultimately consumes Richard and his self-absorbed artist wife, Marina (Hadewych Minis).
Unfortunately for Richard, Borgman is an object lesson in the unreliability of outward appearances. The same dirty, wild-haired, unshaven vagrant (who previously lived in an underground dugout) who activates his hateful revulsion proceeds to seduce his wife without laying a lustful hand on her. As symbolized by the mobile phone with which he communicates with his accomplices [Ludwig (van Warmerdam himself), Pascal (Tom Dewispelaere), Brenda (Annet Malherbe – van Warmerdam’s wife), and Ilonka (Eva van de Wijdeven)], Borgman’s poverty is only a disguise.
After he has won over Marina, he insinuates himself into the life of the family, but (like a vampire) only after being invited into the house. When Marina catches him apparently departing from the family’s guest house (where she hides Borgman from her husband while the former recuperates from his injuries), she begs him to stay on “in another capacity.” He assents to remain, but only after warning Marina (ominously — and a bit over the top) that “ it will have consequences.”
Returning clean-shaven and presentable, he deceives the same man who hatefully attacked him (and who now does not recognize him) into hiring him as a gardener. Borgman returns as a working-class servant of the family only after dispatching the former gardener with a poison-tipped dart from a blowgun. This allows him an entree into the milieu of the family not only for himself, but also for his accomplices (who behave like cult members as much as criminals). Soon Stine (Sara Hjort Ditlevsen), the family’s au pair, has been seduced and turned against her soldier boyfriend, whom Borgman also manipulates for his own ends. The children for whom Stine cares are converted into Borgman’s drones by his accomplices. Having added fresh blood to the group, all that remains is to get rid of the parents.
Much has been written about this film by newspaper and magazine critics, as well as by movie bloggers like myself. Rather than attempting to cover the well-trodden ground that these reviewers have surveyed, I’ll just offer some of the thoughts I had while watching BORGMAN, organizing them by categories suggested by another film’s title.
The Good: Supernatural Symbolism
On the positive side, BORGMAN teases the viewer with symbolism that hints at a supernatural explanation for the action of the film. In the process, it almost, but not quite, becomes a genre horror film. As the pseudo-Biblical epigraph (“And they descended upon the Earth to strengthen their ranks.”) that opens the film implies, Borgman seems to be a diabolical figure, a fallen angel of some rank (although not Satan himself). The setup of the nightmare scene that graces the pages of many reviews (including this one — see the image at the top of the page) is likely an allusion to Henry Fuseli’s painting, The Nightmare (1781). This image reinforces the idea that Borgman is some kind of incubus.
Compounding the issue, Camiel (the personal name that Borgman’s accomplices know him by) is “the first name of one of the seven archangels in Christian and Jewish mythology,” according to Movie Nation. Borgman chooses to call himself “Anton” during his interactions with the family members.
The Bad: Story Problems
Problems with the film’s story-line tend to undermine the diabolical interpretation of Borgman. In my view, this lessens the enjoyment of watching the picture.
- The film begins with two men and a Catholic priest (the latter with a shotgun) flushing Borgman out of an underground hiding place. Clearly they intend to kill him, presumably for some nefarious deeds he has committed. Why do they never reappear in the film? Do they stop pursuing him? Why? Why does Borgman have carte blanche to engage in his personalized version of “play,” free from the threat of his pursuers for the remainder of the story? If a Catholic priest wants to fill him full of buckshot, he must have done something evil enough to warrant committing a mortal sin.
- If Borgman has some kind of supernatural sway over Marina, why do his accomplices (two of whom apparently can shape-shift into dogs) need to perform a surgical procedure on others in order to control them?
- Moreover, if Borgman is indeed a demonic figure, why does he need to use earthly, physical means to kill his victims?
The Ugly: Critics’ Responses
Critical assessments of BORGMAN, especially by the so-called “top critics,” are somewhat underwhelming. One reason is that these reviewers seem to need to fit the film into a preconceived category or theme.
- Why do several reviewers comment positively about this film’s alleged dark humor? I’m just not seeing anything funny here, however morbid the joke might appear to be to others. For example, is it humorous that Borgman’s accomplices set their victims’ heads in buckets of concrete to make sure that their bodies sink when thrown in a lake? I see this as sick and twisted. A positive in terms of the film’s representation of malevolence? Yes. Morbidly funny? No.
- If this film is some kind of commentary on the upper middle class, with Borgman as some kind of Marxist-Leninist hero (as some critics have seen him), why does he kill the working-class gardener and his wife — before he harms anyone in the affluent family?
- Some critics, like the New York Times‘ Stephen Holden, combine the ideas of dark comedy and class struggle: “‘Borgman’ wears just enough of a smirk to suggest that it might be a dark satire about class warfare.” Van Warmerdam certainly hints in these directions, but doesn’t appear to make an ideological or stylistic commitment to either one.