Borgman, by Dutch director Alex van Warderman: unpredictable from start to finish

Most major studio productions -– heck, most films period — cleave to a formula. Though you may not be able to predict each specific plot development before it occurs, nine times out of ten you’ll be able to guess with some precision how the story will unfold: hero/heroine meets boy/girl, hero/heroine loses boy/girl, hero/heroine learns valuable lesson and regains boy/girl’s undying love (or, alternatively, monster emerges from ocean, monster stomps major metropolis, monster succumbs to best efforts of military-industrial complex).

Such, however, is not the case with Borgman (opening at Landmark’s Opera Plaza Cinema on Friday, June 20 – no East Bay play dates are currently scheduled), Dutch filmmaker Alex van Warderman’s challenging and discomfiting new feature. Preceded by the cryptic (and unattributed) quote, “And they descended upon Earth to strengthen their ranks”, and cut from cloth similar to that used in Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, it’s unpredictable from start to finish.

Stabbing the ground with sharpened metal rods, a trio of grim-faced locals (one of them a priest) expel three down-and-outers from their hobbit holes deep in the Dutch countryside. The vagrants — Camiel (Jan Bijvoet), Ludwig (director van Warderman) and Pascal (Tom Dewispelaere) – make good their escape into nearby woodlands, with Camiel re-emerging near the home of wealthy couple Richard and Marina van Schendel (Jeroen Perceval and Hadywich Minis).

A knock on the door and a plea for a hot bath cuts no ice with highly strung media mogul Richard, who tries to slam the door in Camiel’s face. Presaging future plot developments, however, the determined tramp gets his foot in the door, claiming artist Marina once nursed him back to health during a hospital stay. Unconvinced, Richard viciously beats the tramp and leaves him bleeding in the driveway – and then promptly accuses his wife of lying to him about her past.

Taking exception to her husband’s brutality and lack of faith, Marina hides Camiel in an outbuilding and (ironically) nurses him back to health. Quickly recovering, he begins to insinuate his way into the ‘big house’, eventually becoming an unacknowledged guest. By film’s end Camiel has cleaned up, been taken on as the van Schendel’s gardener, and (with the help of Ludwig and Pascal) done extensive landscape work on the estate – and a great deal more besides.

From History of Fear to Dance of Reality, 2013 has been a great year for strange, unsettling, and strangely unsettling films, with Borgman emphatically continuing the trend. Character motivation is completely opaque, and questions that other films would answer – such as whether or not Camiel and Marina actually do know each other – are never addressed. Why does Ludwig tattoo an ‘x’ on Richard’s shoulder? What’s with the dogs that keep walking through the house? And who are Brenda and Ilonka? It’s up to you to decide.

San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival, June 19-29

Berkeley residents Kris Perry and Sandy Stier, above right, in the documentary The Case Against 8
Kris Perry and Sandy Stier, above right, in The Case Against 8, at Frameline38, the San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival

This year’s San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival features several films with Berkeley connections. Unfortunately, I was unable to screen any of them, but among the highlights are The Case Against 8, a documentary about the legal battle to overturn Proposition 8 (two of the film’s major subjects are Berkeley residents Kris Perry and Sandy Stier, pictured, right, above); Regarding Susan Sontag, a feature documentary directed by Berkeleyan Nancy Kates; and two short subjects (The Truth About Love and Panic and Facing Fear) from Berkeley filmmakers Angie Powers and Jason Cohen, respectively. Visit the festival website for venues and showtimes.

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly. Read more from Big Screen Berkeley on Berkeleyside.

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Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as...