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Review: Borgman

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Gradual takeover of total control


- Alex van Varmerdam signs his name to a Kafkaesque film brimming with black humour, about a team of exterminators of middle-class life.

Review: Borgman

Demiurges turned up today in competition at the 66th Cannes Film Festival, where Dutch director Alex van Varmerdam unveiled Borgman [+see also:
film focus
interview: Alex van Varmerdam
interview: Reinout Scholten van Aschat
film profile
, a film both off-the-wall and hyper-controlled, just like its hero, a fake homeless person, angel or wizard demon, wreaking havoc with the modern life of a middle-class family. Handled in Kafkaesque style, this feature film which plays the ace of macabre humour as far as it can go, advances masked by an on-going succession of pretty gruesome incidents, chillingly executed and staged with elegant, clinical efficiency. A playful icy cocktail, which confirms in the beam of Cannes' powerful projectors the status of a cult author (until now relatively confidential), acquired throughout the career of a 60 year-old filmmaker, already selected for Un Certain Regard in 1998 with Little Tony.

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Everything starts at breakneck speed with a manhunt (with a priest) in the forest. Living underground in a warren of hideouts, Camiel Borgman (Jan Bijvoet) warns his pals ("Somebody's squealed"), Pascal (Tom Dewispelaere) and Ludwig (played by the director himself), and runs away. Reaching a select residential neighbourhood at the edge of the woods, he asks the residents' permission to wash in their home, introducing himelf as someone on the road. But his "insolence" gets him a terrible thrashing from Richard (Jeroen Perceval), who is obsessed by his problems with his boss at work. Moved by compassion, Marina (Hadewych Minis), the mistress of the house (who has three children and a young Danish au-pair played by Sara Hjort Ditlevsen), a painter in her spare time, secretly opens the door for Camiel, feeds him and  allows him to stay in an outhouse at the bottom of the garden. But the homeless Camiel soon demonstrates his rather astonishing gifts, haunting the main residence with remarkable discretion (almost verging on ubiquity), except in the eyes of the children who immediately adopt him. Over the following days, the relations between the couple who own the property become increasingly tense, and when Camiel, tired of hiding, wants to leave, Marina holds him back. Start of phase 2 of a gradual takeover of total control of the environment. Camiel calls on his acolytes Ludwig and Pascal, and the duo Brenda (Annet Malherbe) and Ilonka (Eva van de Wijdeven), the quintet then forming a fearsome team of "cleaners". Murder of the gardener and his wife, fake casting of candidates for the job with the result depending on Richard's racism and Camiel re-entering the residence (this time in the guest-room), vast restructuring work of the garden with mechanical shovels, kidnapping of the children ("overwrought because of the modern world") to get them to take a mind-destroying mixture and undergo an enigmatic operation (which stays that way throughout the film), dreams and nightmares, influences and manipulations, blow-pipes and poisonings, a corpse ending up at the bottom of a lake, heads impaled in buckets of concrete: the little theatre troupe pursues to the very end a methodical eradication of perverted human nature… 

Quite radical in its mixture of absurd and ironic violence and the very well-planned organisation (almost routine) of the events orchestrated by Camiel’s band of pals, the film meets the challenge of never explaining who are these very curious characters (crazy environmentalists, chaste angels, jaded demons, aliens?…), who act like a subjugating virus, turning the surrounding atmosphere and minds completely upside down. The portrait of the affluent suburban family is perfectly rendered and all its members lose their minds quite subtly. Underscored by more or less opaque religious references, Borgman plays with its conceptual screenplay and unfolds its episodes with an illogical logic of “one thing leads to another”. But this dadaist and anarcho-nihilist appearance is developed with the strictest rigour, in terms of both the narrative and the directing. The movie as a whole is not lacking in comical interludes and moments of questioning for the spectator, even if the ultra-offbeat style fully assumed by the film might irritate more than one spectator.

(Translated from French)


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Cannes 2013 Official competition

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