The Dutch entry for last year’s Oscars, Borgman, desperately wants you to think it’s a heady, psychological thriller. It wants to creep inside your mind and make you believe you’re seeing a surreal twist on the concepts of good and evil. In reality, you’re just watching a deliberately baffling experiment that will have you frequently cocking your head to the side and asking, “…what?”
Borgman never quite lives up to it’s remarkable and fascinating opening scene. Three men, one a shotgun-wielding priest, head out into the woods. They are hunting a man that lives in an underground bunker beneath the dirt for purposes unbeknownst to us. The heavily bearded man, who we later discover is the titular Camiel Borgman (Jan Bijvoet), escapes from his pursuers, waking up a few other under-the-forest dwellers on his way. This sets the bizarre tone of the film, and will have you hopeful that the rest will be equally as engaging.
The mysterious Camiel winds up on the doorstep of Marina and Richard (Hadewych Minis and Jeroen Perceval) asking for a bath. Richard beats this obviously crazy man, but Marina finds some sympathy for him. She takes care of Camiel in secret, allowing him to stay in the spare room next to their house. Soon, the frail ghost of a man starts getting a little too familiar with Marina’s family, entering their home whenever he pleases and even telling her children bedtime stories. But something about Camiel Borgman appeals to Marina, who feels an attraction that just might turn deadly.
The haunting presence of Jan Bijvoet might be enough to elevate Borgman to watchable, but writer-director Alex van Warmerdam (who also plays one of Borgman’s insidious cohorts) just doesn’t do enough to rope us in. Ambiguity is a valuable asset in the thriller genre, but too much of it can alienate your audience. At some point, Borgman stopped being a psychological thriller and started being an experimental film about nothing. The characters – mostly Marina – make perplexing decisions that seem only to service the plot, which is tenuous to begin with.
This is the kind of movie that will likely garner a cult following for it’s challenges to the form. Camiel is a mysterious figure that is impossible to get a read on, making him the right kind of psychopath for fans to talk about for hours and hours. However, unless you buy into its’ deliberate vagueness, you’ll find Borgman to be a confusing bore.
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