You have to appreciate a film festival that would put a movie as strange as Alex van Warmerdam’s “Borgman” in main competition. Though it often feels as if the cast and director are making it up as they go along, it does have some memorable moments that are ultimately hard to shake.
“Borgman” aims to position itself as a kind of Occupy-ish revenge fantasy on the upper class. We first meet the title character (Jan Bijvoet) at his starting point, which is literally a hole he’s dug in the ground. But if you think that somehow is the key to everything, it isn’t. Perceptions are quickly formed and just as quickly dispelled about who Borgman and his wrecking crew really are.
They might even be dogs for all we know. Yes, dogs. (Coincidentally or not, the Dutch director also runs a theater group called the Mexican Hound.)
You have to toss all your preconceptions and watch the dream play out. It isn’t just any dream, but a bizarre, rambling, vivid dream that startles you awake in a cold sweat: a naked man straddling you, staring at you while you sleep, making you dream terrible things about your husband as you’re being seduced by Borgman. That is but one of the recurring images that cling to the psyche.
The story itself is any family’s worst nightmare: A “homeless” man shows up, asks to use the bath, and mayhem ensues. The director approaches the surreal tale not with heavy drama – though there is a bit of Samuel Becket and Franz Kafka here – but with humor. There are murders involved, and they end up being mostly funny, until they aren’t.
Borgman doesn’t work alone; he has two females and two males who help him carry out his master plan, which I won’t spoil for you here. By the end, the question of what’s going on here remains mostly unanswerable. You can fill in the blanks with whatever makes sense to you but it's just as easily to accept that it makes no sense whatsoever. The film tickles us with oddly nonsensical dream spams disguised as a plot.
The broad theme is a criticism of the lifestyle of the well-to-do. But van Warmerdam isn’t after anything that cut-and-dried. His film is more satire, less cautionary tale. The actors are appropriately poker-faced; the emotion is left to those who have absolutely no idea what’s going on.
In an era where there are very few truly surprising films, “Borgman” is one of the rare movies that manages to find something entirely new to say, with original, oddly drawn characters. I suspect if Shakespeare were alive today, he’d appreciate those comic elements – because if this film reminded me of anything, style-wise, it’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” or perhaps “As You Like It.”
The freedom to tell a story absurdly has mostly vanished. What audience conditioned to be literal-minded can put up with it? But van Warmerdam touches his brush lightly, dipping often into violence and vulgarity, and sticking to its commitment from start to finish to never, for one second, make any sense.
What is revitalizing about the Cannes Film Festival is the broad array of filmmaking on display. Thank goodness they don’t follow Hollywood’s rules about what can and can’t be done. Much of what you see here will make you squirm. But you’ll never be spoon-fed a feel-good, fantasy version of what life should be.
“Borgman” takes the notion of what life should be and rips it out of the ground from its roots. It isn’t any wonder that in the beginning of the film a priest sets out with an angry mob to hunt down Borgman and his gang. Is Borgman the Devil? Is he the underclass? Is he nature?
One thing the film doesn’t have in common with Shakespeare: There’s no tidy ending where everything works out best and all is right with the world. All is not right with the world, clearly.