Borgman is an art-house con destined to make viewers who’ve ever used the term “mindfuck” as praise rack their brains trying to come up with alternate readings for a film that invites many but convincingly offers none. Much like Teorema, the film after which director Alex van Warmerdam has most evidently modeled his latest, Borgman is intentionally obtuse, elusive, and without directed significance, though the prevalence of explicit symbolism and dark humor suggests that deeper meanings may lurk around any narrative corner. But if Teorema’s answers aren’t clear, Pasolini’s irreverent views of religious, economic, and sexual sacrament are. In Borgman, all that its more perceptive audiences are likely to find is imprecise red herring after red herring.
Fleeing the initially unexplained vengeance of some gun-toting men, Camiel Borgman (Jan Bijvoet) rounds up his cult of underground, backwoods friends before momentarily setting off solo, knocking door to door for a bath, though actually seeking a family for his cult to infiltrate. His appearance and request repel most, but once he happens upon the home of Marina (Hadewych Minis), whom he claims once nursed him to health in the hospital, he sets his sights on infiltrating the family, lest he be thwarted by Marina’s husband, Richard (Jeroen Perceval), the family patriarch who initially punches and shouts Borgman away from the property. From here, Marina takes to secretly allowing Borgman access to the house, for mostly inexplicable reasons; a scene of Borgman bathing while eating a tray of food and watching TV is a reasonably good explication of van Warmerdam’s dryly humorous attack on the bourgeoisie, but it proves a singular visual evocation of class-based isolation, rather than commencing a consistent through line of similar moments. From here, the film’s events grow increasingly bizarre, as the extent of Borgman’s reach, and hold over the family of five, proves suffocating, maddening, and ultimately violent.
Van Warmerdam introduces eerie, slow-burn motivations in much the same manner as Michael Haneke or Giorgos Lanthimos, shooting clean and mostly quiet domestic spaces with an impending sense that violence is inevitable. In fact, Borgman bares such similarity to Funny Games and Dogtooth that direct comparison is nearly impossible to avoid because of the explicit tonal and compositional references throughout. Furthermore, rather direct homages are paid to The Night of the Hunter , Mulholland Drive, and Martha Marcy May Marlene, but to little productive or discursive end; as Godard once said, “in order to criticize a movie, you have to make another movie.” But Borgman’s final third reaffirms an ethos of ascetic sadism that characterizes its most direct forerunners. What we have, then, is a basic case of an imitator wishing to pass as an originary and a rather clunky example of pastiche.
Perhaps what makes Borgman most disheartening, finally, is its futility as either cinema or critical essay. Is the cult a group of Satanists? Are they affiliated with a particular political regime? What has shifted in contemporary Western socio-economic life that can update Pasolini’s politics from nearly half a century ago? Van Warmerdam’s updates remain sketchy and the film’s sense of consequence meaningless. Borgman truly deserves the designation “artsy fartsy,” because it’s all hot air with a sleek sheen, yielding no larger point or utility.