The “WTF?” moments come early and often in Alex van Warmerdam’s Borgman, a reworking of Jean Renoir’s Boudu Saved From Drowning that’s like Luis Buñuel by way of Michael Haneke—a scathing, absurdist send-up of bourgeois values in the form of a clinical home-invasion thriller. But the “W” turns from “What” to “Why” over the course of the film, which keeps amassing striking, provocative scenes without making much sense out of them on the whole. Just when some internal logic begins to reveal itself, van Warmerdam pulls out the rug with another random piece of weirdness, some jagged piece of a puzzle that staunchly refuses to come together. The one consistent insight in Borgman is that the family under attack is being punished for its wealth, by both van Warmerdam and a group of homeless invaders. As themes go, it’s thin gruel.
Then again, getting to that point is often thrilling, especially in the first half, when van Warmerdam’s enigmatic storytelling still holds its air of insinuating mystery. The opening sequence sounds like the beginning of a “three guys walked into a bar” joke, as two farmers with a handgun and a hand-forged metal spear, respectively, join forces with a shotgun-wielding priest to hunt down vagrants in underground forest bunkers. Who are they, and why has it come to this? Van Warmerdam deflects the question, instead following one of the vagrants, the gray-maned Borgman (Jan Bijvoet) of the title, out of the woods and onto a street lined with affluent homes. Borgman goes gate to gate and door to door asking for a shower and a meal, but when he tries to lie his way into the home of Richard (Jeroen Perceval) and Marina (Hadewych Minis), Richard beats him to within an inch of his life.
When Richard leaves for work, however, Marina discovers that Borgman is still on the property, and she takes pity on him, secretly sheltering him in the servants’ quarters in the back yard. She pleads for him to keep hidden, but Borgman starts to develop relationships with Marina’s four children, who are mesmerized by his stories, and their nanny (Sara Hjort Ditlevsen), who has reason to resent her employers and rebel against them. Eventually, Borgman replaces the gardener and brings four of his cohorts into the picture, too, sowing chaos in the form of mind control, disturbing sex dreams, a few human-seeming greyhounds, and a landscaping job that suggests neo-Godzilla.
The intrigue doesn’t stop there. The children start behaving like dead-eyed members of a religious cult, Borgman’s minions plant corpses face-first in concrete at the bottom of a lake, and Marina is attracted to her houseguest with an intensity inverse to the revulsion she feels toward her husband. There isn’t a bad scene in Borgman: Any random five minutes is likely to be full of arresting images, perhaps an offbeat laugh or two, along with the seductive tease of an incomplete picture. But van Warmerdam just keeps on teasing and teasing, until the creeping suspicion sets in that teasing is all the film is going to do, beyond the occasional blunt statement Richard and Marina share about being from the West, and perhaps deserving the punishment they get.
Still, Borgman’s unnerving tone remains consistent even as its deeper intentions are hard to tease out. By contrast with Haneke’s Funny Games, its closest antecedent in the home-invasion tradition, the film’s surreal, discursive quality doesn’t impose its will on the audience, so much as systematically disorient it. Van Warmerdam could use a pinch of Haneke’s directness: He’s good at creating fog, but not as skilled at dispelling it.