Caustic, surreal, creepy, and blackly funny, Dutch polymath Alex van Warmerdam’s “Borgman” is the trickster god in this year’s Cannes competition pantheon. Tonally similar to recent cultish favorites from Yorgos Lanthimos and Ben Wheatley (“Dogtooth” feels like a particularly close and favoured first cousin), there’s also a little Haneke in its chilly dissection of a perfect bourgeois life. But it’s really its own thing, due to the inspired choice to take recognisable archetypes of evil and mischief-making, and let them loose on a crisply contemporary, contained playground in the form of an aspirational, architect-designed modernist house, its gardens, and the lives of the family that lives there.
With pitch-perfect performances across the board, and boasting crisp photography and editing, the film never ceases to twist, turn and surprise, taking wicked joy in constantly switching us back on ourselves and our expectations of the characters. Appropriate, then, that it popped up at us like a jack-in-the-box this morning to prove one of the biggest unexpected pleasures the festival has thus far provided.
The prologue to the main story begins as a priest with a shotgun, a young man carrying a sharpened pole and a third man armed with an axe, go hunting in the woods. They’re tracking Camiel Borgman (Jan Bijvoet, in a brilliantly ambivalent, underplayed turn), who is hiding in a pit dug into the forest floor and hidden from view. Borgman, seemingly a wildman cross between Boudu from Renoir’s “Boudu Saved from Drowning” and Rasputin, evades his pursuers, and, alerting two cohorts also hiding in the forest, he flees for pastures new. Turning up later on Richard and Marina’s (Jeroen Perceval and Hadewych Minis) well-heeled doorstep, Borgman causes a scene by claiming to know Marina. Richard retaliates by beating him viciously, for which Marina feels guilty and eventually, behind Richard’s back, installs Borgman in the small summer house on the other side of the large garden.
From here it might seem that we are to get a sort of class comedy of manners, as the trampish, seemingly indigent Borgman assimilates, or fails to, into civilized society. But the narrative turns its face from that option and heads in a much more original direction, gradually revealing Borgman to be a creature of unusual, malevolent powers and uncanny abilities. As he makes first Marina, then the children and their nanny (Sara Hjort Ditlevsen) complicit in his enigmatic plans, he is also aided in their more murderous contingencies by a set of brilliantly deadpan, offbeat accomplices (including van Warmerdam himself playing a small role as Ludwig).
There are a few times the steady progress of events is interrupted by a sudden new piece of information about Borgman’s powers, but the film’s black, ironic tone is so smooth (except for the occasional intrusive and kind of baffling music cue) that it doesn’t snap us out of the mood. Instead, as Marina struggles against then eventually succumbs to his suggestive power, we start to build a picture of Borgman as a Dracula-esque seducer of women (which makes sense, with the priest and the sharp pole from the prologue); as a Sandman with the ability to influence dreams and invoke nightmares; as a Pied Piper figure who exerts a fascination on children; and even possibly a shapeshifter, though that notion is later slyly shrugged off as a red herring.
Basically Borgman becomes the single incarnation of maybe the top ten bogeymen to ever trouble our collective unconscious, but while he’s a creature of malevolence and evil, perhaps most dreadful to us is that it’s really down to his droll sense of mischief. “I want to play” he says, deadpan, at a pivotal moment, before the murders start and things get really weird, and that’s as much a justification as we ever get for his actions. He is unknowable and malicious, a flesh-and-blood Loki whose motivations and goals are beyond our ken but who makes our tragedies his playthings.
This is really what sets ”Borgman” apart from some of its aforementioned brethren. In its fancy-house-being-invaded, psychological-and-physical-torture-ensuing, it has drawn a lot of comparisons to Haneke’s “Funny Games,” and yes, there is a certain similar cerebrality that works its way through, a relentless logic that is opaque to us at every step, but retrospectively feels like it makes perfect, chilly sense. But its differences from the Haneke film are more telling: aside from being a sight more enjoyable to watch, van Warmerdam’s movie doesn’t actually seem overly concerned with social commentary. There isn’t necessarily an assertion that it’s this family’s bourgeois complacency that has led to their undoing, instead the focus is on the mercurial and mysterious Borgman, and his semi-supernatural powers of influence and persuasion. So the didactic tone that can sometimes, let’s be honest, make Haneke feel a bit of a slog, is absent here in favor of a playfulness that permeates even the film’s darkest moments (viz the stupidly beautiful and surreal shot of the dumped bodies in the lake shimmying gently in the current like aquatic plants in a fish tank). It’s not a film that despises its audience or wants you to ask particularly deep questions of yourself, instead it’s a fable, a good-looking parable about the mysterious ways in which evil can work.
Van Warmerdam is no stranger to award success, with his last feature “The Last Days of Emma Blank” picking up Best European Film in Venice in 2010. “Borgman,” however, is not a film we can see winning the big one here for this jury, over some of its warmer, more humanist competition. But whether or not it’s handed any silverware, we had a great time with it as a modern adult fairytale (Grimm Bros rather than Hans Christian Andersen) and a blackly funny continuation of one of our most resilient storytelling traditions: Good vs Evil. Except that here the odds are heavily, humorously stacked in Evil’s favor. [A-]