When Camiel Borgman (Jan Bijvoet) finds himself homeless after being evicted from his underground hideout, he goes from door to door in a wealthy neighbourhood, asking residents if he can have a bath in their home. One such resident, Richard (Jeroen Perceval) attacks Borgman for asking, and his wife Marina (Hadewych Minis) takes pity on the man, hiding him in their home. Once he has established himself in the house, albeit secretly, Borgman uses his influence over Marina to throw the family’s life – and garden – into disarray.
Borgman is a strange sort of film; part psychological thriller and part morality tale; the story is carried by the strong and creepy performance from Jan Bijvoet in the title role. Borgman is an insidious and charismatic man who is played with great strength and power by Bijvoet; it is this performance on which the film hinges.
As Marina, Hadewych Minis plays with the notions of obsession and fear, making her character one who comes to both love and fear this stranger who she has brought into her home. Jeroen Perceval fearlessly makes Richard a horrible, violent and racist character, and it is through this performance that we learn why Marina is so ready to bring Borgman into the house.
The story begins slightly off kilter, and the more time Borgman spends with the family, the stranger it gets. Living in an underground lair is an odd way to spend one’s life, but it seems to be the life that Borgman prefers, as he only leaves when threatened. There is a wonderful moment as he warns his friends that their secret has been discovered; where Borgman up friends from the bowels of the earth, and they emerge, rather like vampires. Which, of course, is sort of what they become.
Writer/Director Alex van Warmerdam has made a film that feels a little like Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, with the family at the centre of the story being unaware that they are being toyed with. Answers, however, are in short supply, as van Warmerdam piles mystery on top of mystery, turning traditional film making tropes on their head; sometimes literally.
There are no answers readily given in Borgman, but it is gripping and engaging to watch as a family is sucked in by the charm and charisma of one dangerous man. Cult leader? Sadist? It is hard to tell what Borgman is, but is easy to tell what he’s not; easily explained. Jan Bijvoet is wonderfully evil – in the true sense of the word; no mincing and purring platitudes here – in a film that is creepy, engaging, and more than a little off kilter.