Borgman | Review
White Child Above the Clouds: Warmerdam’s Dark Classist Comedy a Winner
Alex van Warmerdam’s Borgman has to be the steadily working director’s most accomplished work to date. Known mostly for his droll, sometimes perverse films dealing with families or communities tested by strange situations that range anywhere from a maintained weirdness to potential violence, his latest treat is poised to broaden his appeal to a larger audience. His 1992 film, The Northerners, perhaps his most celebrated film, deals with a group of people living in a 1960’s housing development, while 2003’s Grimm is an off kilter retelling of Hansel and Gretel. Warmerdam’s latest, which also seems to have roots in the fairy tale parable, plays like the strange, neglected cousin to a host of other considerable cinematic references, and yet, it’s a delectable concoction all its own. Incredibly, often wickedly funny, it’s filled with memorable moments, gilded with a dose of class commentary.
Opening with a prophetic quote, “And they descended upon the earth to strengthen their ranks,” this is the only real hint we’re given about our eponymous character, Borgman (Jan Bijvoet) and the beings in his service. We meet him and two cohorts, Pascal (Tom Dewispeleare) and Ludwig (van Warmerdam) each lying in underground hideaways in the forest, stalked by a shotgun toting priest and several other angry citizens. Escaping, Borgman makes his way to an upscale neighborhood where he begins to knock on doors asking to take a bath. He hits the jackpot when he knocks on Richard (Jeroen Perceval) and Marina’s (Hadewych Minis) door, angering Richard when he pretends to know Marina from the hospital where she cared for him as his nurse. Marina has never been a nurse, but her husband, prone to paranoia and jealousy, beats Borgman on his front lawn and leaves for work. Upset and guilty that her husband has acted in such a fashion, Marina invites Borgman in for his bath…and soon he’s wheedled his way into staying in the guest house. While his motives are unclear, it’s soon apparent that his presence will be harmful to her family.
In essence, Borgman is a classic example of interloper cinema, wherein a safe and sound nuclear familial unit is bombarded by outside forces, generally to detrimental effect. Many may recall Haneke’s Funny Games, but Warmerdam isn’t wishing to be as caustic or provocative. Instead, this is more like Boudu Saved From Drowning meets Pasolini’s Teorema. But whereas Terence Stamp was simply a handsome devil whose seduction of an entire family cause them to reexamine the emptiness of their bourgeois existence, Jan Bijvoet’s Borgman is much more insidious.
Warmerdam brilliantly underplays the obvious supernatural element, and we’re never given a direct explanation as to who Borgman or his cohorts really are, though, of course, they’re malignant. We meet them living like vampires or insects buried under the ground, and Bijvoet’s unnerving screen presence is like some Charles Manson version of the devil, using mind control to warp his victims once he’s invited into their home. His familiars even, apparently, transform into dogs, something even Marina, hilariously, seems to comprehend in one sequence where she thinks a canine might indeed be Borgman. Most ingenious of all is how they go about disposing of pesky corpses. Like Grimm, which parts of were filmed in Germany due to Warmerdam’s wish to film in expansive, creepy forests, the foreboding of what’s lurking within the very natural world humans think they rule over seems to be a key motif.
Obviously, class issues provide the backbone of Borgman’s narrative. Upon the onset of their discomfort, Marina proclaims to her husband that “the fortunate must be punished,” to which he responds in the negative. “The West is affluent,” meaning they can’t help where they’ve born, inheriting the privilege they take for granted. Issues of racism and religion are also curiously presented here. Borgman secretly tells the story about a “white child above the clouds,” apparently an allegory about privileged white children, whereby he proceeds to chastise Jesus. Likewise, an aside concerning Richard’s screening process for hiring a new gardener (after the last one is rather cruelly dispatched) reveals a nagging fear of black people, based on the applicants that show up before a clean shaven Borgman shows up to snatch the job. Richard is unable to recognize the man he punched viciously only days before, so relieved he is that he’s not a person of color applying for private service.
As is usually the case in Warmerdam’s films, both he and his wife appear as supporting characters, here both playing Borgman’s delightfully unexplained familiars. While the finale tends to lag, especially considering the innovative and unnerving energy established throughout the rest of the film, inevitably, we know it has to end somewhere. The final dismantling of Marina and Richard’s family doesn’t quite reflect the same ingenuity, including a final dance in their destroyed backyard where Borgman’s company puts on an odd play that seems rather unnecessary. But even if it concludes on a less energetic note than where it began, Borgman is a strikingly composed parable of surprising humor and crafty wit.