It's that time of year again, when all the snobs complain about the "Oscar bait" films being unleashed at the various fall festivals. Once an easily identifiable descriptor, the term has proven to be increasingly meaningless over the years, seeming to encompass any drama film that becomes popular. As an awards fan, it should come as no surprise that I'm one of those who embrace the prestige drama. However, as I sat down to watch Alex van Warmerdam's "Borgman" recently, I realized that there is some truth behind the derogatory term.
In most Hollywood productions, there are clear distinctions between good and evil. Not just from the audience's perspective, but also for the characters in the film. Each role is motivated by a the character's personal philosophy and outlook. It's how we know who are the protagonists and antagonists. But what happens when there aren't these opposing forces? What if the evil trounces the good without any cause? Well, that's exactly what we get in "Borgman", a largely cruel story that pushed me too far out of my comfort zone.
When we first meet the titular Camiel Borgman (Jan Bijvoet) he seems fairly innocent, pitiful even. Residing in an underground makeshift home, he is chased away by a group of unidentified armed men. After making his escape out of the woods, he eventually arrives at the home of a wealthy family and asks for a bath. As expected, the owners Richard (Jeroen Perceval) and Marina (Hadewych Minis) refuse the unkempt stranger. Borgman is resolutely determined though, so he makes up a story about being formerly nursed by Marina in a past life. She promptly denys it, but is unable to alleviate her husband's suspicions and things escalate. Soon, Richard has attacked Borgman, leaving him unconscious. When Marina returns to tend to him, he has vanished. Little does she know that he will soon return, infiltrating her home to covertly upend everything in her life.
Borgman embarks on his sinister plan by cleaning himself up and appealing to Marina's feelings of guilt. He manages to befriend her and convince Richard to hire him as their new gardener. With seemingly good intentions, he even forms a bond with their 3 young children and the nanny. Soon enough, everyone is under his spell (except for Richard) and he unleashes psychological terror that manifests itself in deadly ways.
Like Marina, I was initially entranced by Borgman. The burgeoning relationship between the pair had me invested, curious to understand his peculiar behaviour (as well as that of his accompanying team of sociopaths) and her perplexing fascination with him. There are no false notes in either performance. This is especially true of Minis, conveying a woman who is brimming with inner life. It's too bad that the script forces her to become frustratingly foolish in order to facilitate its overly sinister endgame. What started out as a darkly comic antagonism of the comfortable middle class becomes something that is off-putting with its nihilism. As such, it lost any allegorical power it aspired to.
There's certainly a lot of originality to admire in "Borgman". Despite the distinctive images and interesting performances though, it ended up feeling like too much purposeless shock value. Perhaps I'm just not ready for this level of "art film". Maybe if you wrap this up in a more moralistic "Oscar bait" package I'd be on board.