“Caustic, surreal, creepy, and blackly funny, Dutch polymath Alex van Warmerdam’s Borgman is the trickster god in this year’s Cannes competition pantheon,” begins Jessica Kiang at the Playlist. “Tonally similar to recent cultish favorites from Yorgos Lanthimos and Ben Wheatley (Dogtooth feels like a particularly close and favored first cousin), there’s also a little Haneke in its chilly dissection of a perfect bourgeois life. But it’s really its own thing, due to the inspired choice to take recognizable archetypes of evil and mischief-making, and let them loose on a crisply contemporary, contained playground in the form of an aspirational, architect-designed modernist house, its gardens, and the lives of the family who live there.”
David Rooney in the Hollywood Reporter: “Since making a mark in the Netherlands with his 1986 feature debut Abel and then cracking the festival circuit in 1992 with The Northerners, van Warmerdam has assembled a richly idiosyncratic body of work, most of which he also appears in with his wife Annet Malherbe. In films like The Dress, Little Tony and Grimm, he brings a deadpan observational style to seemingly ordinary lowlanders, subjecting them to absurd situations, sticky psychological challenges and simmering threats of violence.”
Borgman begins with a shotgun-wielding priest on the hunt for Camiel Borgman (Jan Bijvoet), who strikes Jessica Kiang as something of “a wildman cross between Boudu from Renoir’s Boudu Saved from Drowning and Rasputin.” His forest hideout is an “underground clubhouse type lair, complete with a periscope and escape tunnel [which] gives him the upper hand from square one,” as Brian Clark puts it in Twitch. “Off he flees through the woods, and eventually, to the home of an extremely wealthy family, a nouveaux-industrial modern design monstrosity that has not a guest room, but a guest wing. He knocks on their door. We wait. What is this all powerful evil that forced a man of God to take up arms? What grotesquely cruel magic will Borgman unleash on he or she who answers? What unspeakable horror are we about to witness? Well, I’m going spoil just this one very early scene: Borgman asks for a bath.”
When the man of the house, Richard (Jeroen Perceval), “understandably befuddled, refuses, Borgman’s calm refusal of this refusal aggravates Richard into a violent physical attack, one that crucially puts him on the moral back foot with his wife for the rest of the film,” writes Guy Lodge for Variety. “Guilt-stricken and oddly aroused by this implacable stranger, Marina [the wife, played by Hadewych Minis] ends up secretly sheltering him in one of their large estate’s outhouses; it’s not long, however, before he’s creeping about inside the house and endearing himself to the couple’s three preteen children, who assume he’s a kind of shaman. Which, indeed, he might well be: His next trick is winning an unwitting Richard’s approval by bumping off the family gardener and masquerading as a new one. When his fellow travelers arrive to assist with the re-landscaping, it’s clear some family remodeling is in the cards, too.”
“What ensues,” notes Brian Clark, “recalls both Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel The Master in Margarita, where a very charming representation of Satan rejoices as much in mundane pranks as casual murder, and Pier Paolo Pasolini‘s brilliant, oft-copied Teorema, where an insulated, well-to-do family’s carefully ordered life is turned upside down by a mysterious, charming visitor.” Only this version leads, as Fabien Lemercier notes at Cineuropa, to “dreams and nightmares, influences and manipulations, blow-pipes and poisonings, a corpse ending up at the bottom of a lake, heads impaled in buckets of concrete.”
“Warmerdam never spells out who Borgman is or what his intentions might be,” writes Allan Hunter in Screen. “Jan Bijvoet has some of the velvety-voiced confidence of a Christoph Waltz and makes Borgman a calm, eternally reasonable kind of fellow. We observe his ability to take charge of any situation with a degree of admiration that almost makes us one of his followers…. Borgman remains an elegantly teasing puzzle even as you begin to suspect there could be slightly less here than meets the eye.”
The one version of the trailer with English subtitles I’ve found can’t be embedded; you can watch it here.
Updates, 5/20: At the AV Club, Mike D’Angelo finds that “van Warmerdam probably makes the right decision in never explaining exactly what’s going on, allowing each viewer to project his/her own worst fears onto disturbing surgical procedures and the open-ended final shot. But he’s considerably less subtle about his thematic intent (‘We have it so good,’ Mom worries at one point. ‘We are fortunate. And the fortunate must be punished’), and any real-world resonance gets badly muddled by Borgman’s supernatural influence, which turns the family into passive victims who’ve committed no sin except amassing wealth. And not even that much wealth, really. Go after Jeff Bezos.”
For the Guardian‘s Catherine Shoard, Borgman comes off as “ho-hum Haneke, courtesy of a Dutch Funny Games knockoff which tickles happily for the first 40 minutes, then gets niggly, then annoying, and finally just a bit tedious.”
“Call it Haneke-lite or Haneke-wannabe,” writes Barbara Scharres at RogerEbert.com, “but it’s an odd choice for the competition, except for a possible political need to represent a diversity of European nations.”
Fabien Lemercier interviews van Varmerdam for Cineuropa.
Updates, 5/21: “[I]t’s as if Aki Kaurismäki directed Teorema, though that surely oversells it,” writes Adam Cook in the Notebook, adding that “its heavy-handed, allegorical third act runs parallel with its declining sense of humor.”
“Though committed to its clinical vision of arbitrary evil, there’s something about Alex Van Warmerdam’s surreal, blacky comic fable that just doesn’t work,” writes David Jenkins at Little White Lies. “Intrigue is one thing, and making a film that’s not meant to be read literally is another, but when you are unable to root the antics in world that has no connection to reality, then barbs and insight instantly fall flat. The motivations of the characters feel forced and unlikely—Borgman is one of those movies that would be all over if just one person decided to pick up the phone call the police.”
Similarly, Dave Calhoun for Time Out London: “Borgman is always curious and imaginative, and occasionally funny, in a creepy sort of way. But beyond the shocks and games, there’s not a great deal to take away in the form of meaty ideas or lingering themes, and its catchy premise doesn’t really deliver in the end.”
“At times sinister and delightful, but ultimately slightly disappointing,” finds Marc van de Klashorst at the International Cinephile Society.
Update, 6/1: Drafthouse Films has picked up US distribution rights, reports Clint Holloway at Indiewire.
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