The best-known work by painter Henry Fuseli is called The Nightmare, in which a grotesque imp is perched on the chest of a lovely, sleeping woman. He gazes into the eyes of the viewer with a rather miffed expression, as though he is displeased that you're interrupting his nocturnal activities. There's also a freaked out-looking horses head off to the side for some reason. Why? Why not?
Dutch writer-director Alex van Warmerdam recreates this image numerous times in his film, Borgman. I won't describe how, because that would be spoiling the fun. Just know that the story goes there eventually, and it only gets weirder from there.
Jan Bijvoet plays the eponymous character, a vagrant who lives in a shallow hole in the forest that's covered by leaves. He, along with a couple of other peculiar vagabonds, Pascal and Ludwig, are forced to abandon their subterranean warrens, so they seek shelter elsewhere. Borgman ends up at the home of Richard (Jeroen Perceval) and Marina (Hadewych Minis), a very well-to-do married couple with three kids and a beguiling nanny, Stine (Sara Hjorth Ditlevsen), who are going through a rough patch in their marriage. Borgman, through quiet manipulation and deadly tricks, insinuates himself into the family's life, where his motives become increasingly murky as Marina becomes drawn to him ever closer.
Van Warmerdam is a subtle director who draws attention to his images only occasionally. He establishes the unsettling tone and unpredictable rhythm of the film through irregular editing and an almost complete lack of music. For extensive periods of time, characters do not speak to one another which, depending on who is onscreen, is either indicative of their otherworldly qualities (Borgman) or the fissure in their relationship (Richard and Marina). Marina begins to experience dreams that cause her to believe that her husband is either preying upon her or will do so in the near future. She becomes paranoid about her safety and reacts by lashing out against Richard, whose temper is volatile and requires little provocation. Meanwhile, Borgman watches from the shadows, silently infecting everybody with whom he comes into contact.
Eventually we meet some of Borgman's other associates, all of whom have a curious scar just below their right shoulder blade, making you wonder what they all might have in common. Seemingly without work or a conventional lifestyle, Borgman's group all engage in deadpan, sinister acts in order to further some unknowable goal. Van Warmerdam maintains this enigmatic quality throughout the film. By the end of it, you may still be confounded, if not more so, than you were before.
Amid all the strangeness emerges an achingly human performance by Minis, who seems to stand apart from the chaos that is bubbling up around her. She genuinely conveys distress with her family life and unhappiness with her husband, so we can understand why she might latch on to an interesting stranger who crosses paths with her. When we first meet Bijvoet, he resembles Charles Dickens, what with his scraggly beard and unkempt hair. Once he cleans himself up, he reveals himself to be strikingly handsome in an ethereal way, with piercing eyes that burrow directly into Marina's. The unnerving interplay between Minis and Bijvoet is a fascinating aspect of the film, and central to the interest of the narrative.
The narrative is easily the film's weak point. The fractured editing makes it difficult to follow what exactly is happening and whether it is real. It helps to establish the atmosphere, but distracts from the mystery that van Warmerdam leans upon to maintain narrative momentum. I like uncertainty and confusion in storytelling as long as it serves a purpose, but the film may leave you cold because of just how completely opaque it is.
You will be turning this movie around in your head for days afterward, questioning everything that happens and maybe even wondering about what you'd do if you were in Marina's shoes. It is an unusual film, to be sure, and is quite unlike anything I have seen in a while.