Netherlands. Directed by Alex van Warmerdam, 2013. Starring Jan Bijvoet, Hadewych Minis, Jeroen Perceval. 113 minutes. In Dutch, with English subtitles.
What comes to mind when you think of elves? The assistants in Santa’s workshop? Ernie and his minions, living in a hollow tree and baking cookies? Okay, there’s a good chance you think of Orlando Bloom yelling “And my bow!” but I expect most people’s impressions of elves are benevolent and peaceful. Legendry paints them much differently. The fair ones are a dangerous folk, capricious and monstrous. You dare not cross them, for they will fuck you up.
A German variation on the word “elf” is alp, a malicious trickster demon similar to the mara (from which we get the word “nightmare”). The title character of Borgman, played by Jan Bijvoet, could be a modern-day alp. He lives in an underground warren in a forest, until one day, a priest leading an unruly mob drive him and his fellows out of their homes. In desperation, he makes his way to a nearby estate, and he asks the affluent residents Richard and Marina (Jeroen Perceval and Hadewych Minis) if he might use their bath. Not only do they refuse, Richard beats the living crap out of Borgman. In response, Borgman insinuates himself into the family’s life and dismantles it, brick by brick.
…or at least, I think that’s what’s going on. Writer/director/co-star Alex van Warmerdam clearly intends the story to work on several levels: the literal, the symbolic, and the political. Van Warmerdam assumes a distinctly European resentment of the bourgeoise on the part of the audience. He expects us to dislike the rich family because they’re rich, something that might not translate to American sensibilities.
If you don’t catch what goes on under the surface–for myself, I think I’m missing at least a couple more levels–what the film offers is an increasingly absurd thriller. We’re not talking Lynchian levels of weirdness (I had consistently heard Borgman described as “surreal” and expected something much, much stranger) but Van Warmerdam populates the film with characters who do odd things for reasons that are not readily apparent. Or, for that matter, ever apparent. The constant parade of quirk is entertaining enough, and there’s something darkly beautiful about Borgman’s mates’ method of disposing of corpses. But I couldn’t shake the consistent feeling that something was getting scrambled between Van Warmerdam’s brain and my own.
At the very least, the actors are entertaining to watch, particularly Bijovet, whose impish menace permeates every frame. He plays very well against Minis, the character Borgman has the most direct influence on, which is appropriate considering alps are generally thought to visit women. Richard’s characterization is a bit scant–remember what I said before about resentment of the bourgeoise–but Perceval fills the gap admirably.
When watching Borgman, I found it impossible to shake the nagging feeling that I was missing something (maybe multiple somethings) important. Something got lost in translation for me. Still, I found it enjoyable enough for what it was.