Alex van Warmerdam's "Borgman"

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.

6 Responses to “Cannes 2013: Dutch Palme d’Or Candidate “Borgman””

  1. Yeah, based on your summary I’d agree that this one would seem to be the longest of shots, even considering the surprises the jury has come up with with in past years. I feel the perplexed nature of the film by your astute analysis, and that’s a tribute to the writing.

    Craig, are you enjoying the food? wine?

  2. Yes, Sam. The whole experience of eating out is different here than in the States. More relaxed. Less rushed. There’s a basic respect for food here that is terrific.

  3. Nice. That’s MY kind of place! Ha!

  4. That was one of my biggest takeaways from France, Craig. You could really take your time in restaurants and cafes and it encouraged savoring ones food, drink, and surroundings, and made it more of a social experience when shared with others.

  5. I completely agree!

    Is that also true of London? I will be making my first European trip ever in early August, spending six days in London and a full week after that in the home of my site colleague Allan Fish who lives in Kendal, 50 miles from the Scottish border in the lake district, with my entire family of seven.

    Food in the U.K. (from what I have been told) is not taken as seriously as it is in France. Still I will not be indulging in fish n chips! Ha!

  6. It’s funny Sartre, I just ate at a restaurant that is very popular with the American contingent and now I know why: It’s much like an American restaurant. Completely inferior experience in terms of both service and food to what I got at less “popular” places. I think people like it because it’s a little piece of home.

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