Is “dark whimsy” an oxymoron? I guess it is, but I can’t think of a better way to describe the bone-dry, jet black humor delivered with an impish twinkle that has marked at least the last couple of pictures from Dutch writer/director Alex van Warmerdam whose latest, Borgman, debuted yesterday morning in competition at the Cannes Film Festival’s Grand Theatre Lumiere. He excels at setting up seemingly mundane situations, then slowly revealing how off-kilter they are while leaving it up to the audience to piece together exactly what’s going on.
With Borgman, he’s put together an almost surreal comedy-drama deeply rooted in the kind of creepy old school fairytales that used to end not in sweet dreams but in suffering and death. When we first meet the scruffily bearded title character, he’s living under the ground in the woods. After he’s rousted by a kind of posse led by a gun-toting priest (don’t ask, it’s never explained) we find out there are nests all over the forest with strange gentlemen just like him. Now homeless, Borgman and his crew make their way from house to house, looking for that one person who, out of basic human kindness, will lend them aid. Once they insinuate themselves into the lives of others, they begin to sow the seeds of chaos and wait for the fun to begin.
Borgman himself has open, kind eyes and at first you wonder if his intentions are positive. As the film goes along however, it becomes more and more clear that his agenda is dangerous and destructive. For many, it even turns out to be deadly.
So, what does it all add up to? Truthfully I still haven’t really decided what van Warmerdam is trying to get across. His previous film, the similarly-toned The Last Days of Emma Blank was a bitterly twisted satire of familial relations and a mostly solid one. Borgman just comes across as mean-spirited. The people who are being abused never seem to deserve what they’re getting. I’m sure that’s the root of the film’s point, but even a misanthrope like me has a limit to how much pointless cruelty he can stand. It’s amusing for a little while seeing people try to deal rationally with irrationality and thereby aggravate the consequences, but the pleasures are limited and the return on investment diminishes as the film goes along. Of all the films competing this year for the Palme d’Or, Borgman so far seems like the longest of shots.