One reliable pleasure of attending the Chicago International Film Festival is discovering filmmakers who have solid reputations in their home countries but aren’t especially known in the U.S. This year I’ve enjoyed catching up with Alain Guiraudie (Stranger by the Lake), a French writer-director who’s made about a half-dozen films since 2000, and with the Netherlands’ Alex van Warmerdam, who’s been active since the mid-1980s. Unlike the films by first-time directors that make up much of the CIFF program, Van Warmerdam’s Borgman (which screens again tomorrow at 8:15 PM) displays a fully formed artistic sensibility. Regardless of its overall merit, the movie marches to its own beat.
Slightly reminiscent of Pasolini’s Teorema, Borgman tells the story of a strange man who insinuates himself into the lives of a well-to-do family. The stranger is a homeless man first seen living in an underground hideaway somewhere in the woods. When authorities demolish his secret living space (a cozy-looking lair that recalls the ones Bugs Bunny used to inhabit), he takes off for the nearest suburban development, knocking on doors to see if anyone will let him in. One homeowner is so disgusted by his request that he beats the bum half to death. This man will pay dearly for his violent outburst, but the complete nature of his punishment won’t become clear for a while. Borgman grows ever stranger as it progresses, with macabre murders and unexpected transformations of character that recall Grimm’s Fairy Tales.
Reading about van Warmerdam after seeing the film, I wasn’t surprised to learn that one of his earlier films, Grimm, is a modern-day update of those stories (or that another film of his had been compared to fairy tales too). This fondness for fairy-tale narrative suggests affinities with Neil Jordan, but van Warmerdam (at least on the basis of Borgman) seems just as fond of classic surrealism. After Borgman the bum joins the rich jerk’s family—first as a secret guest of his wife, then (in disguise) as an avant-garde gardener—he comes to represent different things at different times. He’s alternately a savior, a demon, a representation of the family members’ repressed desires, the embodiment of anarchy, a hex on first-world privilege, and a Harpo Marx-ist comic imp. Despite all this, van Warmerdam communicates a steady internal logic—everything plays out in the same icy, deadpan visual style, and there’s always some bizarre explanation for what happens. As Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote of his Reader capsule for van Warmerdam’s The Dress, Borgman feels like a productive round of exquisite corpse, the literary game devised by first-generation surrealists.
At times, Van Warmerdam seems to take the term “exquisite corpse” literally. Of all the murders I saw in this year’s festival, Borgman had the most creative. There’s an Edward Gorey quality to the deaths—I couldn’t help but chuckle at some of them.