The titular character of Alex van Warmerdam's Borgman does not have horns, nor does he command grotesque demons spawned from hellfire. Emaciated, clothed in rags with long hair and a beard, he actually looks a lot like Jesus at first. But since he's being hunted by a priest with a rifle when we first meet him, it seems pretty safe to assume that he's more likely the exact opposite of the son of God.
The gun doesn't do much good, and while some of the priest's posse has a bit more luck with a spear, Borgman's underground clubhouse type lair, complete with a periscope and escape tunnel, gives him the upper hand from square one. Off he flees through the woods, and eventually, to the home of an extremely wealthy family, a nouveaux-industrial modern design monstrosity that has not a guest room, but a guest wing. He knocks on their door. We wait. What is this all powerful evil that forced a man of God to take up arms? What grotesquely cruel magic will Borgman unleash on he or she who answers? What unspeakable horror are we about to witness?
Well, I'm going spoil just this one very early scene: Borgman asks for a bath.
Yes, van Warmerdam isn't interested in the classical representations of evil, but rather the elusive, insidious type, the type that, as the saying goes, resides in the details. Indeed Borgman only asks for a bath, but when the man of the house, Richard, denies him one, Borgman's manipulative mind tricks work their wonders, and suddenly, the model citizen is on the front lawn beating the snot out of what looks like a homeless man. This not only horrifies his wife, Marina, but makes her deeply sympathetic to Borgman. And so, not only does Borgman get a bath, but Borgman gets a new temporary home in the backyard guesthouse.
What ensues recalls both Mikhail Bulgakov's novel The Master and Margarita, where a very charming representation of Satan rejoices as much in mundane pranks as casual murder, and Pier Paolo Passolini's brilliant, oft-copied Teorema, where an insulated, well-to-do family's carefully ordered life is turned upside down by a mysterious, charming visitor.
So yes, after Borgman's appearance, the bodies begin to pile up, the husband-wife-child relationships crumble, minions (of course the devil has minions) show up and, dammit if Borgman doesn't get more and more charming, handsome and seductive with each day that passes.
Obviously we're in creepy, provocative and somewhat ambiguous territory here, but van Warmerdam also brings wit and humor that is often laugh-out-loud hilarious to the proceedings. It's certainly dark, sterile and deadpan, along with pretty much every stylistic choice in the movie, but also whip-smart, inventive and often very surprising. One detailed monologue by Marina about the origins of her young daughter's teddy bear ("This was made by children your age! For very little money!") is sharper, funnier, angrier and more surprising than any dialogue I've heard in a film this year. And it totally killed at the 8:30 am press screening.
Many will likely make comparisons between Borgman and another off-kilter descent into insulated evil, Dogtooth. Stylistically, they share much in common, and yes, Borgman is essential watching for fans of the jet-black Greek comedy, but van Warmerdam is much more interested in maintaining the ambiguity of the menace beneath the surface rather than letting it erupt for all to witness. This opens up a number of interpretations to material, and honestly, anyone who thinks they can explain everything in the film probably missed the whole point.
During the last thirty minutes, as the conclusion becomes more inevitable, it at times feels like a sudden, jarring visceral punch would have served the movie well and perhaps prevented it from dragging, which it does occasionally. But while there are some incredibly imaginative macabre images in the film. a full-on switch to action and spectacle would have betrayed the main idea that van Warmerdam had so effectively developed for the first two-thirds of the movie, that is, that evil is a fluid, subtle thing, easily malleable and often mundane, but no less malicious than the fire and brimstone alternative. If anything, it's even more dangerous.
Review originally published during the Cannes Film Festival in May 2013. The film opens in New York at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and IFC Center on Friday, June 6, before rolling out to other U.S. cities in the coming weeks. Visit the official site for more information.