Film review: Borgman 

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Some of the best films use ambiguity to their advantage, leaving an open-endedness that lingers upon their conclusion. Borgman, a nominee for the Palme d’Or at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, certainly meets this criteria, leaving a lot open for interpretation. And while many will feel alienated by its abstruseness, those seeking a well-crafted, thought-provoking thriller will find reason to wallow in its symbolism.

Dutch director Alex van Warmerdam follows Camiel Borgman (Jan Bijvoet), a vagrant who has riled up some folks from the film’s onset. It opens with a mob — led by a priest with a shotgun, if that tells you anything — on a hunt for Borgman and his cohorts, all of which seem to reside in their own personal underground lair. After escaping, Borgman stumbles upon the home of an upper-class family and asks to use their shower. The husband, Richard (Jeroen Perceval), doesn’t take kindly to Borgman’s persistence, using violence in order to shoo him off. But Richard’s wife, Marina (Hadewych Minis), empathizes with the deceiptful Borgman and furtively (yet somewhat reluctantly) takes him into their home.

From this moment on, Borgman debases Richard, Marina and their three children by piecemeal, slowly driving a stake through the heart of the family and prying it apart with ominous precision. Yet he does so through some rather surreal, almost supernatural methods. A nude Borgman preys over Marina in her sleep and plants nightmarish thoughts into her psyche; greyhounds lurk through the property like demonic spirits; and after a fresh-shaven Borgman uses questionable means to land a job as its new gardener, the family’s subversion becomes excruciatingly tense.

Borgman is not a horror film, but it isn’t that far off. Its successes are largely predicated on inciting tension and fear — psychological in nature but with an outward-looking purview — beckoning you to extract social or religious commentary from its allegory. But depending on which side of the metaphorical fence you fall, its vagaries will either bewilder or befuddle, whether through the seemingly impervious references to fantasy and fable or the opaque intentions of its characters.

The dubiousness of Borgman’s motives in particular makes it difficult to have a stake in the matter. Are his actions a plot to take down the arrogant bourgeois? Is he some sort of vessel for or embodiment of evil? Van Warmerdam shows little interest in answering these questions, opting instead to let his audience carry the brunt of the intellectual legwork. For less patient viewers, this can make for a tiresome watch, and the lack of closure throughout much of the film — and ultimately its conclusion — might leave you vanquished and cold.

Yet, despite its flaws, Borgman is frequently captivating in its bleak portrayal of modern-day folklore. Its pacing, performances and direction all teeter on top-notch, and as long you’re willing to endure its mental calisthenics, it’s also a deeply engrossing and impactful piece of cinema.

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