My review of the award-winning “Borgman” at Fantastic Fest 2013, Netherlands’ Oscar entry

On Saturday, September 21, 2013 I attended the US Premiere of the highly acclaimed Dutch film Borgman at Fantastic Fest 2013 in Austin, Texas. The screening took place at the brand new Alamo Drafthouse Lakeline.

A mysterious, apparently homeless and crude man (Camiel Borgman, brilliantly played by Jan Bijvoet) emerges from the woods and insinuates himself into the oh-so-perfect house of Marina (Hadewych Minis) and Richard (Jeroen Perceval). They appear to be a typical moneyed Dutch couple with three bratty children and several sizable dogs. He cleverly crafts a scenario in which he will go from being a useless pest to an indispensible member of the household. He seems to have a knack for gardening. But he’s also prone to showing up naked in the family's bedrooms. He's a habitual...what? Surely he’s done this before. He’s either a lone vagabond on a mission to prey on the upper class or a horny lunatic who just wants to get laid. Yet he seems to have some compatriots in waiting, as well. Perhaps we’re witnessing a civilized home invasion.

No matter what transpires from one loopholed scene to the next, of course, things are never what they seem. The viewer is alternately horrified and amused, puzzled and confounded at every move the odd character makes. Borgman is an intricate psychological thriller that, at close to two hours, demands patience and generosity on the part of the viewer. Deciphering the moral, political, social, and sexual messages at the heart of the film is the frustrating challenge -- and the pure fun of it.  

This is writer/director Alex van Warmerdam’s eighth feature behind the camera. He’s acted in and served as writer, director, producer, and composer for most of his pictures. All have been highly acclaimed on the festival circuit, including Voyeur, The Northerners, The Dress, Kleine Teun, Grimm, Ober, The Last Days of Emma Blank, and Blackout. Producer Mark van Warmerdam and composer Vincent van Warmerdam, his brothers, have worked on most of his projects.

Borgman had its triumphant debut at the Cannes Film Festival in May, where it was the first Dutch movie nominated for the Palm d’Or in almost 40 years. It was one of four that Drafthouse Films acquired for US distribution there. It went on to play close to 20 festivals in the following four months prior to its US Premiere in Austin, including fests in Poland, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and its native Netherlands prior to its North American Premiere in Toronto last month. This was one of many titles I missed at TIFF and was fortunate to catch at Fantastic Fest. In just that brief time on the circuit, it was nominated for 12 awards and won three, including Best Director at the Athens International Film Festival, Best Film at Serbia’s Palic Film Festival, and Best European Film at Strasbourg in France.      

Jan Bijvoet is primarily a Dutch television actor. Borgman is only his fifth feature. But as the titular character he magnificently carries the movie like a seasoned veteran, reminiscent of Denis Lavant’s multiple personality role in Leos Carax’s 2012 curiosity Holy Motors. The large ensemble cast features stellar performances from some of director Alex van Warmerdam’s go-to actors, including the aforementioned Hadewych Minis and Jeroen Perceval, along with Eva van de Wijdeven, Sara Hjort Ditlevsen, and Annet Malherbe.

Veteran cinematographer Tom Erisman is a ubiquitous presence in Dutch cinema and television with close to 100 productions to his credit in various positions. Borgman is his 28th feature as cinematographer. Editor Job ter Burg has worked on over 80 Dutch TV and film projects, including Black Book, one of my Top 10 from the 2006 Toronto International Film Festival. Both have worked on the van Warmerdams’ previous movies as well.

The filmmaking team has decades of experience working as a family unit (literally), ensuring high production values and a slick, polished presentation. Shot in widescreen 2.39:1 aspect ratio, Borgman is a feast for the eyes. Erisman fully lights his sets, giving the movie a bright, sunwashed look with a rich palette of primary colors. Editor Job ter Burg’s style is characterized by long takes with limited action. Lightly punctuating the narrative is a sparse and appropriately frugal score from composer Vincent van Warmerdam. There are gentle touches of music here and there allowing the enigmatic atmosphere to rely on the visuals and dialogue, which itself is quite minimal. Ultimately, Borgman is a quiet film which requires great mental focus and concentration. This is not a “check your brain at the door” popcorn flick.

The stark sets are a character unto themselves. Most of the story takes place in one location, a contemporary minimalist house with clean lines and sharp angles – the epitome of decadent Western architecture. It’s clear that the cultural differences between the two “families” underscore the class warfare at the heart of the narrative.       

Borgman is front loaded with foreshadowing that only comes together much later in the film. The audience is treated to apparent non sequiturs, either incredibly annoying or delightfully appealing in their surreal absurdity, that only begin to fit into the puzzle in the third act. Skits straight out of Monty Python, underscored by a Mel Brooks sensitivity, turn on a dime into a macabre Poe milieu. Numerous ellipses – gaps in the storyline that must be filled in by the viewer – don’t make it any easier. It can be a bit disconcerting – tune out and you’re lost. But stay with it and be rewarded with a magnificent tapestry of drama and gallows humor that only reveals itself upon reflection after the credits roll. What an achievement.  

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NOTE: I selected Borgman for my Fantastic Fest 2013 Top Picks. It was the Netherlands’ official submission for the Best Foreign Language Film category at the 2014 Oscars and was produced by the Netherlands’ Graniet Films along with Epidemic and Angel Films. Worldwide sales rep Fortissimo negotiated deals for a number of territories, including Cinéart for the Netherlands and Belgium, ARP Sélection in France, Mozinet in Hungary, and Films We Like in Canada. Drafthouse Films acquired Borgman for domestic distribution. It opens in New York City on Friday, June 6th and expands to select citites nationwide on June 13th and June 20th. For tickets & showtimes visit http://bit.ly/WatchBorgman

The first five minutes of the film are posted below, along with the official trailer with English subtitles and a Dutch language behind the scenes video. A set of stills follows.

http://bit.ly/WatchBorgman


Borgman - trailer - English subtitles

Camiel Borgman is the central character in this dark, malevolent fable. He arrives as an outsider in the sealed-off…
  • Video Release: May 17, 2013
  • Length: 1.23 min
  • Views: 6152

Alex van Warmerdam - Building the film set of Borgman (2012)

Een korte rondleiding over de set-in-aanbouw van "Borgman", de film van Alex van Warmerdam....
  • Video Release: June 24, 2012
  • Length: 6.62 min
  • Views: 7322



Author

Larry Richman

Larry Richman

For 20 years I was a professional in the entertainment industry, from commercial broadcast radio in America's fourth largest market to band management to record production. But my passion is independent film, and I spend much of the year traveling to film festivals to see indies and meet the actors, directors, and others responsible for creating them. I'm a writer, photographer, and videographer, currently serving as Senior Vice President for Media & Technology and Public Relations at PROnetworks as well as Editor at Larry411.com

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  • Author: Larry Richman
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