European culture contains an appetite for self-destruction that is highly specific, and can look a little baffling from this side of the Atlantic. America’s death wish, after all, is right there on the surface, bound up with our urge to conquer and dominate. Guns and violence are central elements of the American narrative, and beneath all the bluster and juvenile fantasy throbs an obvious nihilism. Western Europe looks orderly and harmonious by contrast, even amid its recent resurgence of social problems and economic crisis. But those things should remind us that the bourgeois social-democratic consensus of the European Union is a veneer pasted atop centuries of warfare, religious terror and imperialism.
You don’t have to think deeply about European history or recent European cinema to find some sinister kicks in Alex van Warmerdam’s pitch-black domestic comedy “Borgman,” but those things can help situate this exceptionally disturbing film, and maybe decode it a little. A Dutch actor and director with almost no international profile, van Warmerdam was thrust into the limelight at Cannes last year with the premiere of this beautifully constructed puzzler about a drifter who insinuates himself into a picture-perfect suburban household, with increasingly nightmarish consequences. If there’s one thing that’s clear about this story, in which the motives and actions of Borgman (Jan Bijvoet) and his mysterious group of associates are never explained, it’s that the family in this palatial modernist house on the outer fringes of Amsterdam has invited him in. What happens to them later is fundamentally their own doing.
On one hand, “Borgman” is a fairytale, as old as the Brothers Grimm: Once you invite the devil into the house, there’s no end to your trouble. On another, it belongs to the recent tradition of demented, allegorical European horror, including the Greek art-house hit “Dogtooth” and the Belgian obscurity “Calvaire,” aka “The Ordeal,” which is truly a one-of-a-kind experience. Van Warmerdam has clearly been influenced by the devious, philosophical meta-fictions of Michael Haneke (he of “Amour” and “Caché”), but also by the moral and spiritual dramas of Ingmar Bergman. In fact, there’s a clear relationship between “Borgman” and the early Bergman film “Through a Glass Darkly,” in which Harriet Andersson vividly plays a young woman losing her mind. One viable interpretation of what’s going on in “Borgman” is that Marina (Hadewych Minis), the family’s frustrated and repressed wife and mother, is experiencing a psychotic breakdown.
But that’s not the only interpretation, and it’s not necessarily mine. As with Haneke’s films – and as with, say, the infamous conclusion to “The Sopranos” – insisting on figuring out “what really happened” and that only one answer can be correct is missing the whole point of the experience. For one thing, none of it really happened! This is a work of fiction, created to provoke an intellectual, emotional or visceral response. While various readings of its events can be more or less plausible, there’s no “right answer” that explains everything or accounts for all possibilities. This urge to decode a unitary solution partly comes from the superficial resemblance of a movie like “Borgman” or “Dogtooth” or “Caché” to a conventional thriller, but partly reflects a larger tendency in contemporary culture: The world may be confusing, but on the Internet we know all, or something like that. (The documentary “Room 237,” about the universe of cult theories surrounding Kubrick’s “The Shining,” is one of the greatest explorations of this tendency.)
What we learn about the hirsute, hawk-nosed Camiel Borgman at the beginning of the film is already confusing. Somewhere in a rural, wooded part of the Netherlands – and one of the themes of European horror is to capture the isolated fragments of the continent’s lost wilderness – a local priest armed with a shotgun and two associates roust Borgman from his underground lair, with the apparent purpose of killing him. I mean underground as in actually under the ground, and as Borgman flees out a secret entrance and makes his way toward the highway, he rouses several friends in similar dens, who’ve slept through his cell-phone calls. So what the hell is going on? Are these guys vampires or demons or something? Well, maybe, but if so they can walk abroad by daylight and display no obvious inhuman traits, unless you’re counting a sociopathic disregard for human life and basic decency.
Some time later, Borgman finds himself ringing doorbells of tastefully appointed Euro-modernist homes – the architect-designed, low-impact cognates of American McMansions – and asking patently ridiculous questions: “Can I come in and take a bath?” When he encounters Richard (Jeroen Perceval), a broad-shouldered, rugby-playing agro-corporate type, Borgman seems to sense an opportunity. He refuses to take outright door-slamming hostility for an answer, taunting Richard with hints that he knows his wife from some unspecified past context. When Marina comes to the door, she insists she’s never seen this tramp before and Richard explodes, beating and kicking Borgman with hooligan-like intensity. In some sense the whole movie is contained in that scene: Borgman may be the agent of chaos, but he hardly has to do anything for the latent violence within this family to come to the surface.
Minutes after Richard leaves for work, Borgman has been bandaged up and is soaking in the couple’s impressive bathtub, eating a hot meal, drinking an excellent French wine and watching an American movie on TV. (Every TV show seen in this film is in English, which strikes me as a clue of some kind, or simply as a fact.) If Marina feels conflicted at first about taking in a mysterious houseguest out of liberal guilt, her attempts to conceal him are perfunctory. The Danish nanny finds out immediately, and her three picture-book blond children soon become a hypnotized audience for Borgman’s troubling bedtime stories. And if she’s troubled by the signs and portents that come along with Borgman – like the pair of whippets who show up and explore the house carefully, before he shoos them back to the woods – it doesn’t last.
By the time Borgman packs his things and sets out again, saying simply that he’s bored and “wants to play,” it is Marina who urges him to stay. (Or actually to reinvent himself and return in a new guise, one Richard won’t recognize.) He has already made vivid appearances in her dreams, and if she doesn’t consciously know what this unexplained apparition’s version of “play” will look like, the impulse to destroy her family’s comfortable existence is already strong. While the violence seen in “Borgman” is never graphic or gruesome, van Warmerdam’s wry mixture of brutality and comedy will definitely prove hard to take for some viewers. If you don’t see the humor in a scene in which Borgman and his companions dispose of three bodies in a rural pond – and then go swimming in it – then this movie isn’t for you.
Ultimately I don’t think “Borgman” has the philosophical subtlety of a Haneke film, and it doesn’t even pretend to have Bergman’s level of intense human compassion. Once it becomes clear that everyone in the household – certainly Marina and the hot Danish nanny, probably the children and perhaps even Richard – is secretly on Borgman’s side, and yearns for the total obliteration of their privileged existence, the end point of the narrative is never in doubt. But the hard, dreamlike shimmer of “Borgman” never abates; it’s brilliantly photographed (by Tom Erisman) and superbly acted even as the characters push past naturalism into absurdist psychodrama. If you can tolerate watching it once, it will burrow into your brain and never get out again; your only recourse will be dragging your friends into the nightmare and seeing it again.
“Borgman” is now playing at the IFC Center and the Lincoln Plaza Cinema in New York. It opens June 13 in Austin, Texas, Philadelphia and Seattle; June 20 in Atlanta, Houston, Kansas City, Los Angeles, Miami, San Antonio, San Francisco, Tucson, Ariz., Lubbock, Texas, and New Braunfels, Texas; June 22 in Winchester, Va.; and June 27 in Ashburn, Va., with more cities and home video to follow.