Is “Borgman” a fable? A fairy tale? A parable? An allegory? A burlesque of Western bourgeois life in the 21st century? One thing Dutch writer-director Alex van Warmerdam’s film isn’t is a black comedy, even if that’s what it’s meant to be. The movie’s black, all right, but a comedy has to be funny.
The film begins strangely enough to be intriguing. A man leashes up a tracking dog. He’s joined by two other men. One is a priest (symbol alert) who’s just said Mass. Their prey is a shaggy vagrant (Jan Bijvoet) who lives in an underground chamber (further symbol alert). It’s rather nicely appointed, actually. The vagrant is the title character. As he flees, he alerts other underground dwellers. It’s like a human prairie dog town in Holland.
Borgman fetches up at the sleekly modernist home of Marina (Hadewych Minis) and Richard (Jeroen Perceval). With casual aplomb, he asks to come in and take a bath, insinuating that he knows Marina. Richard, enraged, punches and kicks him. Marina, horrified, lets Borgman hole up in a guesthouse. “You mustn’t become a problem,” she tells him. Uh-huh.
This sounds a little bit like Jean Renoir’s classic “Boudu Saved From Drowning” (1932) and Paul Mazursky’s amiable remake, “Down and Out in Beverly Hills” (1986). A vagrant enters into the life of an affluent family, with the hilarious effects you might expect and the humanizing ones you might not.
Soon enough, things start to feel more like Michael Haneke’s “Funny Games,” a very different kettle of incongruity, in which thugs invade an affluent couple’s home. Borgman gets himself hired as gardener. He’s shaved off his Charles Manson beard, trimmed his hair, and generally neatened up. So Richard doesn’t recognize him, but Marina knows. (What Marina sees in Borgman is one of the countless implausibilities that make the film more annoying than disturbing.) Borgman enlists the aid of his fellow former vagrants — van Warmerdam plays one of them — as gardening assistants and medical personnel (you read that right). Bad things start to happen to people in an affectless sort of way.
Van Warmerdam, who likes to use a smoothly gliding handheld camera, gives his smugly repellent film the clean, uncluttered look of Marina and Richard’s house. Except for the increasing marital tensions between the couple, everything is very deadpan. The idea is to juxtapose visual realism with emotional stylization so that motivation and plausibility don’t matter. The hoped-for effect, presumably, is to achieve the inexorability of dream logic: when things that ostensibly make no sense nevertheless feel right. Here they just make no sense, and feeling — of pretty much any sort — is about the last thing to be found in “Borgman.”