If Michael Haneke had a slightly less ironic appreciation of the term “funny games,” he might have cooked up something a little like “Borgman,” a sly, insidious and intermittently hilarious domestic thriller that is likely to remain one of the most daring selections of this year’s Cannes competish. More disquieting than explicit, this eighth feature from Dutch writer-helmer Alex van Warmerdam, who also features memorably in the ensemble, strikes a familiar note in its allegorical punishment of the entitled upper classes, but the execution is sufficiently inventive to mark the pic as a challenge worth accepting for adventurous arthouse distribs.
For the sake of descriptive economy, it’s tempting to classify “Borgman” (named for its oddly passive-aggressive chief villain) as another entry in the increasingly popular subgenre of the home-invasion thriller, but that would misrepresent the film’s more complex premise. “Home inveigling” or even “home infection” would be closer to the mark: Many of the most horrific domestic violations in this story occur with the permission of the family under threat, lending a Pinter-esque slant to van Warmerdam’s slow-burning narrative.
A cryptic opening sequence isn’t rendered any less so by later events. As an unidentified man swallows a pickled herring at his kitchen counter (clarifying, if nothing else, that we are most certainly in the Netherlands), a priest-led manhunt is taking place outside. The apparent target, middle-aged, lank-haired Borgman (Jan Bijvoet), is rudely awoken from a nap in his sophisticated underground shelter, and beats a hasty retreat with his similarly concealed cohorts.
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Seeking refuge in suburbia, Borgman rings the doorbell of wealthy married couple Marina (Hadewych Minis, excellent) and Richard (Jeroen Perceval) and politely asks to use their shower. When Richard, understandably befuddled, refuses, Borgman’s calm refusal of this refusal aggravates Richard into a violent physical attack, one that crucially puts him on the moral back foot with his wife for the rest of the film.
Guilt-stricken and oddly aroused by this implacable stranger, Marina ends up secretly sheltering him in one of their large estate’s outhouses; it’s not long, however, before he’s creeping about inside the house and endearing himself to the couple’s three preteen children, who assume he’s a kind of shaman. Which, indeed, he might well be: His next trick is winning an unwitting Richard’s approval by bumping off the family gardener and masquerading as a new one. When his fellow travelers arrive to assist with the re-landscaping, it’s clear some family remodeling is in the cards, too.
It’s at this point that the film, after initially flirting with a more whimsical tone, takes a decisive turn for the macabre and never looks back. The weight of suspense then shifts to the inner-family dynamic, as Borgman’s crew begins subtly playing Marina against her increasingly paranoid husband. Not that the film feels particularly bad for Richard, who is made rather unsubtly to represent everything that’s detestable about the One Percent (or higher Dutch equivalent): Refusing to hire non-white household staff without diplomas, he barks at his wife, “We’re from the West; it’s affluent. That’s not our fault.”
In a sleek technical package, production designer Geert Paredis’ modern, warmly textured but uninvitingly spacious family house reps a significant asset to the drama. Editor Job ter Burg limits the film’s most violent jolts to a handful of brutal dream sequences, but horror-film rhythms and imagery are wisely kept to a minimum elsewhere. Instead, this is the kind of film that finds droll pleasure in the sight of dead heads setting in buckets of cement.