There’s no shortage of arresting images in Borgman, starting right from the opening scene. Director Alex Van Warmerdam—a Dutch filmmaker who’s made seven previous features in relative obscurity, at least in the U.S.—plunges straight into what appears to be the climax of a previous movie, as angry villagers, led by a shotgun-toting priest, roust the title character (Jan Bijvoet) and several others from underground lairs, in which they apparently live like weird hermits. What they’ve done to inspire so much hatred is never explained, though it becomes fairly clear once Borgman escapes to suburbia and knocks on the door of a random upscale home, asking to use the shower. Paterfamilias Richard (Jeroen Perceval) rudely refuses, but his wife, Marina (Hadewych Minis), takes pity on Borgman, allowing him to stay in a small guest house and playing along when he changes his appearance and applies for a job as the family gardener, having killed the previous gardener in order to create a vacant position for himself.
What follows is an unusually cryptic variation on a scenario that’s generally pretty mysterious to begin with: the bourgeois family invaded by a charismatic outsider with uncertain but clearly nefarious intentions. Unlike, say, Pasolini’s Teorema (the gold standard for this sort of thing), Borgman isn’t particularly psychosexual, even if Borgman himself has a habit of squatting nude over Marina as she sleeps, seemingly to influence her dreams. For one thing, he still has all those friends from the underground lairs, who show up in various guises for reasons that are never made entirely clear, though these colleagues keep offing people and sinking them to the bottom of a lake with their heads encased in buckets of cement. For another, they seem to be primarily interested in Richard and Marina’s young children, upon whom they secretly conduct some sort of surgical procedure—the nature and purpose of which is, again, never explained, or even hinted at, really. Things don’t look very good for the wealthy couple, though.
With so many outré elements and so few concrete answers, Borgman certainly has the makings of a cult film, which seems very much by design. Too much by design, arguably: After a while, the film’s nonstop obfuscation starts to seem irritatingly coy, especially as offset by a theme that’s anything but subtle. “We have it so good,” Marina says at one point, spelling it right out. “We are fortunate. And the fortunate must be punished.” In other words, this is the bizarro-world version of a typical Claude Chabrol movie (or of Renoir’s Boudu Saved From Drowning, if you want to take it way back), tossing in vaguely supernatural facets like mind control along with the usual psychological gamesmanship and murder. Van Warmerdam keeps things engrossingly ominous throughout, and Bijvoet has a lot of fun with his passive-aggressive creepazoid, but Borgman is both too self-consciously odd and too bluntly punitive to draw real blood. It’s a conversation piece of a movie that won’t actually start any conversations beyond “That was freaky.”