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The Eccentricities of 'Borgman'

Borgman is too enigmatic for its own good.

Jan Bijovet gives a riveting performance as the beguiling and fiendish Camiel Borgman in writer, actor and director Alex van Warmerdam’s Dutch thriller Borgman. However, the magnificent performance is lost in the film’s inexcusable refusal to answer the numerous questions brought about by the perfunctory storytelling. Hadewych Minis, Jeroen Perceval, Tom Dewispelaere and Sara Hjort Ditlevsen also star.

The vagrant Borgman is first forced to flee his underground dwelling, and then he later happens upon the residence of Richard (Perceval), Marina (Minis) and their three young children. After asking to bathe, and then being soundly thrashed by Richard, Borgman hides out biding his time. He feigns serious wounds and quickly gains the attention and interest of the naïve Marina.

A bizarre sexual attraction begins to burgeon in Marina while she hides and secretly nurses the wounded Borgman back to health in the guest house. Borgman also starts to win over the children through his numerous visitations which involve him telling the kids stories.

With a number of odious and puzzling henchmen, Borgman murders Richard and Marina’s gardener, so the villain might take the worker’s place. Shaven and cleaned, Borgman interviews with and is hired by the very man who beat him to a pulp earlier in the film. Richard has no idea what he’s done, and this opens the door for Borgman to hatch his revenge against the wealthy couple.

There are a couple of instances of imagery which audiences will have a hard time dispelling. The first is how the seemingly normal and charismatic Borgman employs his henchman to do away with his murdered victims. The slain bodies are laid above a metal bucket, and the heads of the victims are slowly lowered inside. The baddies then pour wet cement into the buckets, so they can drop the bodies, head first, into a small lake. It’s both eerie and alluring to see the corpses at the bottom of the lake lying motionless in the buckets.

The second bit of imagery which is grotesquely disturbing is Borgman pretending to garden when he is in fact building an elaborate grave for his unwitting victims. Clueless, the couple gathers with their children to celebrate the garden’s completion, unaware it is intended to be the final resting place of the wealthy family.

It’s obvious why Borgman was screened at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival and even nominated for the prestigious Palme d’Or (Golden Palm) Award, which is the highest prized awarded. The film’s direction is superb and the cinematography by Tom Erisman is second to none in its depiction of the picture’s realistically foreboding environment.

Unfortunately, all the technical achievements, along with the stellar acting, aren’t enough to carry this intriguing, suspense-building, but ultimately flawed film to conclusion. The first problem is the fact there is virtually no musical score. When the music is present, it is wicked and foreshadows a bit of the yet unseen horrors. Sadly, it is only utilized in a handful of scenes and the credits. Music is the life soul, if you will, of any good movie. Unfortunately, the score has been left out in the cold to the great hindrance of the picture.

The most irksome issue with Borgman is the number of unanswered questions left for moviegoers to try and figure out on their own. While the film builds and builds gut-wrenching suspense, the movie never gets around to explaining the insurmountable amount of fill-in-the-blanks left for deciphering.

Why were Borgman and his cronies literally living in the ground? Who were Borgman’s accomplices? What was their relationship? What did they have to gain by targeting Richard and Marina? Why did Marina begin lusting after a complete stranger who was haggard at best? Why did Richard and Marina’s seemingly innocent daughter bash a complete stranger’s head in with a concrete slab when all he did was ask for help?

The questions continue right up until the end of the film when the survivors actually go off with Borgman and his gang after witnessing the most heinous of murders. It makes no sense! Unfortunately, without the suspension of disbelief, the suspect narrative of Borgman dooms the film to a less-than-average rating.

Borgman is an acquired taste at best. Undoubtedly, film aficionados will argue the unresolved queries are somehow charming and an artistic preference by the filmmakers. Leaving your audience hanging and wanting more is one thing, but refusing to engage them with any inkling of a cohesive conclusion, riddled with laziness, is quite another.

Fritz Lang chose not to reveal, on screen, the aberrant acts that Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre) committed against children in M (1931). John Carpenter chose not to reveal too much about Michael Myers’ background in the original Halloween (1978), and Wes Craven decided not to shove the issue of child molestation down audience’s throats in A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984).

These are artistic choices which do not hinder the overall narrative. That is why the aforementioned films are good cinema, and Borgman is slothful with its only compelling features coming from the movie’s technical aspects.

Borgman is well-crafted from a production standpoint, and there is isn't any fault with the acting even with the young children. But the screenplay is a hodgepodge of sequences and scenes which leave the audience with too many questions. Borgman is maddening not mysterious. This is a true case of a filmmaker’s desire to leave the audience wanting more, but all they’re going to want is their money back.


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