In the modern age, when streaming and home video allow the consumer to program their viewing experience almost entirely to their leisure, the avoidance of spoilers has become something of a high-wire act for critics. If you give away too many of a film’s secrets, you’ll be vilified for “spoiling” it for others; however, you have to talk about something, or every review will just become a nebulous cloud of feelings and innuendos. The trick, generally speaking, is to discuss the gestalt of the film, while remaining vague about the revelations of the third act; to discuss that things happen, without necessarily spelling out what those things are.
But how does one talk about a film which ultimately reveals nothing about its own inner workings? Is everything fair game, or is that, in itself, a spoiler? That is the question I find myself confronted with in discussing BORGMAN, and I have not yet settled on an answer. Perhaps if I just talk myself through it, things will become clear.
The film opens with a small posse of townspeople (including a priest) marching wordlessly into the forest with weapons. They descend upon a hidden underground apartment inhabited by a disheveled man in a dirty suit. The man escapes, frantically calling and alerting a number of other men in similar spider holes, who also take flight. After losing his pursuers, the vagrant knocks on a stranger’s door and asks to use his shower, claiming to know the man’s wife, Marina. When he persists, the man attacks him; his wife, while not recognizing the man, takes pity on him, and secretly allows him to take shelter in the garden shed. Soon, the stranger begins to exert a strange influence on both Marina and her children, eventually inserting himself (and his similarly sinister confederates) on the family’s garden staff. As you might imagine, things start going downhill for the family pretty fast.
BORGMAN is a very deliberate film. Like this year’s earlier genre head trip, Jonathan Glazer‘s UNDER THE SKIN, its characters clearly operate under a very specific set of rules, but we get even less of a clear image of the rules that govern Borgman and his confederates (who I will henceforth refer to as the Borgmen, even though that’s obviously silly) than we do of Scarlett Johansson’s alien seductress. There is humor to be found, particularly in the matter-of-fact way the Borgmen wreak their mayhem, but it is played bone-dry, and is often devastatingly bleak. The most obvious point of reference here is Michael Haneke’s blisteringly sadistic FUNNY GAMES; both films feature mysterious strangers ingratiating themselves into, and subsequently dismantling, an upper-class European family.
But the Borgmen are playing a much longer con than that film’s Peter and Paul, and to far more inscrutable ends. Where Haneke punishes his audience by letting his camera linger to the point of excruciation, director Alex van Warmerdam taunts them by cutting away just before a clear image can be put together of what precisely is going on. The film subsequently walks a tightrope between the tantalizing and the maddening, as the motivations of both the Borgmen and the protagonists remain steadfastly opaque. But as the film unfolds, and we learn more about the nature of the Borgmen, the situation becomes clearer.
Actually, let me amend that. We learn nothing about the nature of the Borgmen. There is no moment of revelation, and while the Borgmen clearly have a plan, it is never stated aloud. And yet is that very lack of resolution that pulls the entire film into focus. BORGMAN takes the form of a psychological thriller, tricking the audience into expecting a denouement in which the threads tie together. When they don’t, the viewer must reassess the evidence and try to figure out what it was they just watched. I’ll get into what I got out of it in the next paragraph, so SPOILER ALERT, I guess.
It wasn’t until I exited the theater that it occurred to me that I might have just watched a vampire movie (though other viewers have pointed to this legend as perhaps a more accurate fit). Certainly, there is little explanation for Borgman’s actions outside the supernatural; the sway he holds over the women and children of the household defies the rational, and he seems to bear no motive outside of pure trickery. When young Isolde first glimpses Borgman, she refers to him as “a magician,” and it’s hard to argue with that assessment. Some of the film’s most haunting images come from a pack of greyhounds which mysteriously enter and exit the house at will, and a meaningful glance between Marina and one of the dogs suggests that they may, in fact, be the Borgmen themselves. Many filmmakers have used monsters as a vehicle for psychological undercurrents; this may be the first film I’ve seen to reverse that formula.
All of this brings me back to my first point about spoilers. I went into BORGMAN pretty much cold; I had seen the trailer some months earlier, and deliberately avoided reading anything about it in preparation for my screening. Yet despite popular wisdom, this may have actually proven detrimental to my enjoyment. As I watched it, I was occasionally annoyed by the movie I thought I was watching, waiting for Borgman’s game to become clear. But the more I thought about it, and realized what kind of movie it probably is, the more I find I like it, and want to see it again. So if you skipped the last paragraph, I recommend going back and reading it; it might spoil the surprise of the thriller, but it will adequately prepare you for easily the strangest monster movie you’ll see this year.
BORGMAN (2013) dir. Alex van Warmerdam [113 minutes]
Kendall Square Cinema (1 Kendall Square, Cambridge, MA 02139)
Click here for tickets and showtimes