by Glenn Lovell
Dating to the silent era and such early sound films as Carl Theodor Dreyer’s “Vampyr” (1932), Denmark has shown a propensity for naturalistic stories about the occult, nasty little concoctions that mix dank, atmospheric settings with pitch-black humor. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that “Borgman,” last year’s Oscar entry from the Netherlands, is a Dutch-Belgium-Danish head-scratcher about itinerant satanists who wheedle their way into an especially vulnerable family … with typically unpleasant results.
But none of this is spelled out in so many words.
Directed and written by Alex van Warmerdam, who also appears as a member of the cult, “Borgman” successfully toys with the audience in much the same manner as Michael Haneke’s “Funny Games.” Repeatedly we ask, “What’s real? What’s make-believe? Are there supernatural forces at work here, or is it simply a case of hypnotic suggestion?
Roused from their underground lairs, Borgman (Jan Bijvoet) and his minions seek fresh converts. Borgman stakes out the bunker-like home of Richard (Jeroen Perceval) and Marina (Hadewych Minis), demanding more than asking for a handout and a bath. Richard loses his temper and lays into the guy; Marina, feeling guilty, invites the mendicant to hide in the guest cottage. She soon falls under his spell. To make their clandestine relationship more manageable, Marina and Borgman decide he will clean himself up and return as a potential candidate for gardener (the old gardener and his wife have been planted, like geraniums, at the bottom of a lake).
Much like the vagrant/houseguest in “Down and Out in Beverly Hills,” Borgman easily insinuates himself into the family, locating their weak spots and playing one against the another. Soon, he has Marina, the couple’s three children and American nanny eating out of his hand. Richard, a TV producer, couldn’t be more oblivious to the situation.
This weird new import sometimes feels like a fever dream. Characters, most especially the eponymous gardener, float through the narrative as if in a Dr. Caligari-induced haze. The shocks, when they come, prove almost always to be part of Marina’s nightmares. Indeed, one of the most disturbing images has the nude Borgman sitting, satyr-like, astride the sleeping Marina, an obvious homage to Henry Fuseli’s “The Nightmare.”
So what is van Warmerdam up to here? Is this dour little entry meant as a metaphor for middle-class ennui, yet another jab at affluent somnambulists, aka the Walking Dead? At one juncture, Marina reminds her tightly wound husband, “We have it so good. We are so fortunate. And the fortunate must be punished.”
Borgman and his efficient assistants, obvious stand-ins for the director, are only too happy to oblige.
BORGMAN ✮✮✮ With Jan Bijvoet, Hadewych Minis, Jeroen Perceval. Directed, written by Alex van Warmerdam. 113 min. No rating (would be R for adult subject matter, nudity, graphic violence)