By Rainey Wetnight
“I saw a magician.” -Isolde, the daughter of one of the two main characters in this fascinating fable
Camiel Borgman (Jan Bijvoet) first appears in the lives of an upper-middle-class family as a homeless man. All he wants is a bath, he says, because he is “quite dirty”. One might wonder why he doesn’t ask housewife and artist Marina (Hadewych Minis) for something to eat first, but it turns out he has his reasons for wanting to be clean right off the bat. Her high-profile TV mogul husband, Richard (Jeroen Perceval) is immediately suspicious - so suspicious that he attacks Borgman and almost kicks him to death. To make up for this violent outburst, Marina offers the gray-bearded tramp not only a bath, but a meal and a night in her summer house. “I’m sorry,” she says, but Borgman replies sympathy won’t cut it. “I’m in pain,” he informs her. “Nurse me.” She does, over the course of a few days, but Marina is the one who needs help.
Why? Clue number one: One opening scene of Borgman involves a priest. Two: There are also two men with the holy Father, one with a makeshift spear and the other with a shotgun. Three: See the italicized quote above. However, our villain is not just any magician, or even any evil magician. He can make a little girl’s fever vanish (as well as himself), but for what purpose does he need a surgical team? Like a regular stage prestidigitator, he has several assistants, namely Ludwig, Pascal, Brenda and Ilonka. “You’re early,” he tells two of them that Marina can’t see. “Off with you”. However, they’re currently in greyhound form.
With all this supernatural weirdness going on, what’s just as intriguing are the tense familial dynamics. Marina feels underappreciated, mostly by her husband. A gardener (disposable yet biodegradable) looks after the grounds, while a beautiful nanny named Stine looks after the children. Surprisingly, there’s none of that kind of hanky-panky going on, but someone sure is looking to wreck this supposedly happy home.
The best scene in the movie is a late one, a family dinner to which Borgman and his friends are invited. However, despite their malevolent nature, their being present isn’t really necessary in order to make these solid suburban citizens tear at each other’s throats. Richard has just been fired, and the son of his former boss also happens to be at the table: Stine’s new boyfriend. As before, Richard springs into action. He aims to pummel this threat as he had the bearded, tattered old one, but Marina immediately stops him. Later she asks her gardener for a favor: “He has to die, Camiel.” Is her request utterly unreasonable?
What director Alex van Warmerdam excels at is subtlety: the sound of flies buzzing whenever a certain character is around, shots of glasses of dark red wine, the harried scraping of a knife on buttered toast, and metaphors of kisses and a white child near a lake. Even though his touch is deft, sometimes it’s almost too light. You might start wishing that the protagonists would just go off the proverbial deep end already and quit standing on the diving board. However, once they do, it’s absolutely riveting to watch.
In most movies about a capital-A adversary, the main character knows pretty quickly with whom s/he’s dealing. Negotiations ensue, the rate of exchange for temporal happiness is revealed, and a deal is made (blood-signed contract optional). In this one, though, the Tramp can take his time. In one hour and fifty-two minutes, he slowly worms his way into the hearts and minds of his human prey, discovering and warping their desires. “There will be consequences,” Borgman warns Marina when she wants to hire him as the family’s new landscaper. However, she barely bats an eyelash. Does she not suspect…or not care?
Calamity befalls us in several ways. We can lose our jobs, our homes, even our families, due to events that we neither plan nor control. However, with actual evil - as with a fictional vampire - you have to let it in.
RAINEY’S RATING: 3.5 STARS