Alex van Warmerdam’s Borgman opens with a disorienting, enthralling sequence in which three men, led by a priest, raid on hidden lairs in a forest where three other men, shabby and unkempt, have hoarded a treasure trove of weaponry. The motives of neither group are clear, but the sheer force that propels the scene promises a wild ride. The entirety of the film can’t quite match the energy of this scene, but maintains its fresh air of ambiguity.
The titular Borgman (Jan Bijvoet) is a bearded, mysterious wanderer who settles on an affluent house in which Marina (Hadewych Minis) and Richard (Jeroen Perceval) live with their three children and their young, Danish maid. When Richard firmly rejects Borgman’s request to take a bath in their house and viciously beats him, Marina takes pity on the vagrant and hides him in a backyard bunkhouse. The audience is alerted both to the underlying sense of unease that begins with this game of hide and seek, and to van Warmerdam’s overarching allegory about a Dutch society scarred by class divisions and racial tension.
Borgman charms Marina and enchants the children with his story, yet remains inexplicably hidden from Richard’s sight. Borgman’s comfort at the residence, where his presence has brought others nothing but discomfort, has a comic absurdity to it. He prances around the house, takes long baths as he watches television and sips red wine, and tells the children horror stories about a sea monster. Marina is increasingly attached to this intruder whose mysterious, naked presence above her as she sleeps at nights induces in her nightmares in which she sees herself in violent conflict with her husband. Borgman succumbs to Marina’s request to stay with the family, eventually plotting a plan to replace the estate’s gardener. With the plan in place, Borgman brings his accomplices, four other lair people who assist him in his progressively ruthless takeover of the house.
Gradually accumulating questions and increasingly implying that there is no intention of answering them, Borgman leaves its absurdities open to multiple interpretations. It is at once frustratingly reticent with expositions but engrossing in equal measure. Yet, for all its muddled plotting, the film is rather aggressively open about its grand social allegory. If it isn’t enough to see Richard brazenly bar minorities from entering his house, or Marina tell her kids about the plight of the world’s less fortunate children in a patronizing tone, van Warmerdam literally visualizes a toppling of the middle class by throwing their dead bodies head first in the lake, where they remain permanently upturned.
This allegory is interesting but also quite obvious and superficial, conveyed early in the film and the needlessly repeated, like an angry, lower class fist beating a dead horse. However, if the political observations of the film leave something to be desired, its visceral pleasures are on point. Borgman uses the empty spaces in each frame to perfection, drawing attention to the minutiae of the mise-en-scene and evoking the sense that there is always something eerie lurking just beneath the surface. There is little explicit gore or violence in the film and that is precisely why it’s so scary. Like the peculiarities it leaves unexplained, the perverse pleasure of the film’s horror lies is what is withheld from our view, not what is shown.