Cannes Review: 'Borgman'

Don't open the door without asking who's there. It's something my parents drilled into my head as a kid but I guess they never taught that in the Netherlands.

"Borgman," Alex van Warmerdam's surreal dark comedy, appears, on paper at least, to be a cautionary tale about invaders who can penetrate even the most secure of home environments. The film's magic is in keeping your sympathies on the side of the mysterious visitors, even when they are murdering innocent people. For a while they seem like class war vigilantes - or maybe just leeches - until, finally, we're left with but one conclusion: they are evil. "Borgman"'s crafty, trickster-ish screenplay, always two steps ahead of you, keeps you rooting for clues, enough to put your ethics on temporary hold.

We first meet our antihero (Jan Bijvoet) in a hole in the ground. A priest and and his posse chase him out of his mole-like domicile. Bearded and scraggy (but wearing a blazer and holding a cellphone) he escapes, warning others in similar hiding spots before racing into the woods.

He stumbles into town, ringing doorbells, asking if he can take a bath. He makes his way to a stunning, isolated Philip Johnson-esque home, where Richard (Jeroen Perceval) politely but sternly refuses him entry. After Bijvoet is caught in a lie, pretending to know Richard's wife Marina (Hadewych Minis) Richard proceeds to beat the hell out of him. When Richard splits for work, Minis finds the wretched creature hiding in the garage. She secretly bathes him, feeds him and lets him sleep in the gardening shed. And much like Loki in "The Avengers" or Javier Bardem's character in "Skyfall," we soon realize this is all going along to some sort of plan.

Richard and Marina live in ridiculous, dare-I-say disgusting first world wealth, relegating all parenting duties to their young, strangely conservatively dressed Danish nanny. The infiltrator (whom we'll later discover is named Camiel Borgman) may come off, at first, as proletarian vigilante. This idea is quickly dashed, though, during stage two of the operation - when he kills the working class gardener and his wife in order to assume his position.

This is accomplished in an extremely crafty way, mixing poisons, employing his accomplices to appear as doctors and disposing the bodies in a most macabre (but clever!) manner. To ensure employment, he and his team send in applicants of color that are swiftly rejected before a clean-cut Borgman applies. Richard is happy to hire a white man, though Marina is quick to recognize who it actually is. She stays mum, worried that whatever happened to the gardener could get her in trouble, but also because Borgman is infecting her mind.

While we never know how, Borgman seems possessed of certain powers. He can slink into rooms unheard and, if you are sleeping, infect your dreams. He and his team all have scars on their backs, and pretty soon the three "Village of the Damned"-like kids do, too. There's a grand conspiracy happening at the edges of "Borgman," one that involves black hounds, avant-garde theater performances and elaborate home landscaping. Marina is the only one who knows, yet Borgman's hold over her keeps her silently complicit. It all builds to a hilarious, tension-rich dinner party including the extended family of servants and Borgman's army of henchmen.

If there's a complaint I have about "Borgman" it isn't that the film goes unexplained. Like Ben Wheatley's "Kill List" it does all make sense when you think about it. A movie that requires post-screening discussion is, I think we can all agree, what the world needs now. My only wish is that it would go further. The moments of dark comedy (usually involving the henchmen) don't quite go far enough. There are visions of violence (mostly in dreams, but still, yeeeacch!) but nothing you haven't seen before.

What works wonderfully, however, is the unease of not knowing just who, if anyone, deserves our sympathy in this story. The infiltrators are all so charismatically nonchalant (and well dressed) that it is hard not to cheer them on, but as the body-count of innocents unlucky enough to get in the way of their scheme increases, the "Funny Games" fourth-wall break isn't even required.

There isn't a dull moment in "Borgman," and while there are social implications it is, at a basic level, a horror film. It is to its credit that it takes us some time to determine who are the true victims.

SCORE: 8.0 / 10