“Destroy your safe and happy lives before it is too late,” the Mekons once sang. The smug suburban Dutch family in writer-director Alex van Warmerdam’s bleakly comic allegory Borgman never got the memo, which leaves them open to a peculiar and languorously sinister home invasion. Not even the backyard is safe. In fact, the backyard is anything but safe.
What, exactly, is going on in Borgman? You’ll have no idea in the movie’s first scene, and you may not be totally sure even by the last. But the picture is fascinating for the way it introduces the kernel of an idea and then builds on it slowly, sustaining suspense rather than just leading the audience right up to the “OK, I get it” moment and running out of steam. You’ll get the basic message pretty early on. But van Warmerdam keeps such a calm, firm hold on the material that he practically hypnotizes you into following along to the end. The craftsmanship is precise; the result is enigmatic.
Early in the movie, we’re introduced to a small community of mole people, vagrants who live underground and move from hole to hole as, presumably, their needs and whims dictate. One of these earth dwellers, Camiel Borgman (Jan Bijvoet), a sandy-bearded ruffian in a shabby suit, finds himself on the run. (He’s being pursued by a trio of pissed-off country folk that includes a priest with a shotgun.) He makes his way to the suburbs, wandering from house to house, knocking on doors and politely asking if he might take a bath. Eventually, he insinuates himself into the meticulously appointed household of Marina and Richard (Hadewych Minis and Jeroen Perceval), a place where everything is always under control, thanks to Richard’s massive income — he’s some sort of slick Euro-executive — and Marina’s uptight-cool approach to running the home. Their family is seemingly invincible. Yet before long, Camiel is calling the shots, exerting mind control over Marina and Richard’s three perfect blond children, plus, eventually, their young nanny (Sara Hjort Ditlevsen). He also ensconces himself as the live-in gardener, wasting no time in digging a deep, watery hole — for no immediately apparent reason — behind the family’s Architectural Digest–ready house.
Borgman brings friends along, too, including more mole-men in rumpled suits and two harsh-looking women who march around confidently in beige raincoats. Clearly, one of Borgman‘s big themes is the simmering resentment between the haves and the have-nots, but van Warmerdam also flirts with the idea that in the process of making our lives so comfortable, we’ve lost sight of our essential animal nature. When Marina’s children fall suddenly and mysteriously ill — it’s the first day of their school vacation, and all they want to do is sleep — she summons a doctor, who tells her matter-of-factly that “the modern world” has made her children exhausted. “Don’t forget, they have a lot to cope with these days: TV, Internet, school.”
The ideas in Borgman might be a little heavy-handed, but they’re woven so deftly into this sinewy, beguiling story that it’s easy to ride along with them. There’s very little overt gore or brutality here. Van Warmerdam is more interested in laying out a creeping sense of dread, laced with darkly glittering jokes. When Marina scolds her youngest child for ruining an expensive teddy bear, her white liberal guilt kicks into overdrive: “This bear was lovingly put together by human hands — maybe even children’s hands.”
Borgman is beautifully composed and shot by cinematographer Tom Erisman — frame by frame, it’s as orderly and austere as one of Marina’s casual-chic table settings might be. Van Warmerdam keeps the movie’s structure sleek, too: It doesn’t build to a climax so much as make its way around a final, grimly elegant curve. But what’s likely to stick with you long after Borgman has ended is the deadpan malevolence of the title character: As Bijvoet plays him, his eyes are wild and calculating, his manners deeply manipulative in their courtliness. Slowly but expertly, he bends this little family to his will. At the movie’s spookiest moment, he hunches over Marina’s sleeping form, a stark-naked animal spirit, filling her head with nasty dreams before scampering away. Be forewarned that Borgman may give you nightmares. But you wouldn’t want your life to be too safe and happy, would you?