Thursday, November 14, 2013

AFI Fest 2013: "Borgman"

Director: Alex van Warmerdam
Runtime: 113 minutes

A head-turner at this year's Cannes Film Festival, Dutch thriller Borgman is as hard to pin down and understand as the titular character. Shaman? Demon? Alien? All seem like potentially valid interpretations in Alex van Warmerdam's briskly paced domestic invasion (infection?) tale. There have been comparisons to Haneke's Funny Games, but the more appropriate reference point is Yorgos Lanthimos' Dogtooth, which was equal parts sinister and bizarrely funny. 

When we first meet Camiel Borgman (Jan Bijvoet), he's fleeing from a hunting party led by a gun-toting priest. Upon making his escape, he finds his way into the home of an upper class family, walled off from the world in their fortress-like modern home. Though Richard (Jeroen Perceval) brutally rejects Borgman's pleas for shelter, his wife Marina (Hadewych Minis) takes pity. Without Richard's knowledge, she takes Borgman in, hiding him away in the small shack on the outskirts of their sprawling backyard. The one condition, of course, is that Borgman never enters the house or interacts with Richard and Marina's three children.

What happens next is where Borgman starts to defy description. Strange incident after strange incident piles up, and van Warmerdam's slick storytelling keeps the episodes light, weird, and frequently hilarious. At every opportunity to answer a question, van Warmerdam simply throws five more out to the audience. You know nothing about Borgman or his motivations, but it doesn't take long before you wish you knew everything.

Yet as good as van Warmerdam is at raising questions, he's less successful at coming up with satisfactory answers, or even hints at answers. Carried by the direction and strong performances, Borgman goes down easy, despite its self-conscious weirdness. Yet once the ending arrives and the screen goes dark, it doesn't take long before you stop caring about the dozens of questions that you had in the moment. For a film that has such fun poking and prodding the audience (as well as the characters), there's a curious lack of thematic bite when it comes to the finale. 

The moments leading up to said underwhelming finale are still more than enough to make the film worth a look. With its swift story telling (doled out with simple, yet effective camera work) and lack of heaviness, Borgman is an unexpectedly accessible variation on the home invasion (home encroachment?) sub-genre, despite its myriad oddities. Watching Bijvoet and Hadewych play off of each other (as well as the rest of the ensemble) is a great deal of fun, with the actors' collective commitment to van Warmerdam's vision being a huge boon to the overall project. If there's any part of Borgman that will stay with you over time, it's the unfussy, unpretentious dedication to spinning a deliciously strange journey that matters far more than the ultimately hollow destination.

Grade: B/B-

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