Dutch writer-director Alex Van Warmerdam's 'Borgman' is a mischievous fantasy about an enigmatic tramp-like figure, much more nasty than he first appears, who leaves his forest lair and, with a gang of co-conspirators, inveigles himself into the life of a well-off family living in a modernist bungalow-cum-mansion.
We first meet bedraggled Borgman (Jan Bijvoet) being chased from his hole in the woods by some local vigilantes, including a breathless vicar. Soon he persuades wealthy wife and mother-of-three Marina (Hadewych Minis) to let him live secretly in her outhouse, even after he receives a vicious beating from her permanently angry husband, businessman Richard (Jeroen Perceval) on his first attempt to convince them to let him take a bath. Persuasion and perverse leadership are Borgman's strengths, and it's not long before his two sidekicks (one played by filmmaker Van Warmerdam) are working their way into the family's lives and finding ways of turning one against the other. And what's that strange scar on the backs of those under Borgman's control?
Films about middle-class emotional bankruptcy and unwelcome intrusion are fairly common – of recent stories, 'Dogtooth', 'Funny Games' and 'Lemming' come to mind. But less usual is the black comic, borderline absurdist tone that Van Warmerdam adopts here, mixed with a strong vein of sexual menace. So the horror of seeing someone having their head encased in a bucket of concrete is tempered by the sick humour of seeing that same body and bucket sink to the bottom of a lake like a submarine sculpture.
'Borgman' is always curious and imaginative, and occasionally funny, in a creepy sort of way. But beyond the shocks and games, there's not a great deal to take away in the form of meaty ideas or lingering themes, and its catchy premise doesn't really deliver in the end. As a satire of the bourgeoisie it's fairly gentle and distinctly unfocused, and unlike, say, 'Dogtooth', there's not enough rigour to the logic of this removed world for us properly to be sucked into its rhythms and its rituals. Similarly, it's not savage enough to make you sit up and take entirely seriously Borgman's gradual takeover of these lives. It's a loopy, lopsided experiment.