UNHAPPY in their Own Way

Two darkly comedic tales of familial woe


Thanks to an insistent Folio Weekly reader, I finally got around to watching the 2013 Dutch film Borgman, written and directed by Alex van Warmerdam. The movie had been on my list, but I hadn’t had time to watch it.

I’m glad I did.

Borgman was not only the first Dutch film to be selected for Cannes Film Festival in 38 years, it was the official Netherlands Oscar submission for Best Foreign Film. Certainly not what most American viewers might regard as a typical “foreign” film, neither is Borgman a typical “horror” film—though that may be the most convenient genre for this riveting, compelling, altogether weird and original film.

Set in present day, the movie opens with a priest and a few compatriots going into the woods; they intend to root out and destroy people living in underground hovels. Alerted to the assault, Borgman (Jan Bijvoet) escapes to warn two friends, one of whom, Ludwig, is played by writer/director van Warmerdam.

Making their way to an isolated upper-class home, Borgman begs a handout from the wife Marina (Hadewych Minis), only to be beaten and driven away by her irate husband Richard (Jeroen Perceval). Borgman and pals aren’t finished, though.

Insinuating himself and his crew into the home, Borgman begins a subtle but deadly assault on the unsuspecting couple, their children and pretty nanny Stine (Sara Hjort Ditlevsen). Just who or what Borgman and his allies are isn’t explained, though the crusading priest suggests supernatural possibilities. At one point, the stranger perches like a nude incubus on the sleeping Marina, her husband beside her.

Borgman’s presence becomes a definite infection, embraced willingly—even eagerly—by all but the luckless husband.

Another unknown element here is motivation. Borgman and crew (including a murderous woman and her companion) embody a corrupting influence, particularly on the nanny and her charges. Whatever it is they do to them (some of it entails surgery), the recipients are eventually willing converts.

Brilliantly acted and completely understated, Borgman is haunting—and darkly (very darkly) comic. Many reviewers have noted similarities to Michael Haneke’s disturbing Funny Games, the ’97 German version faithfully and just as effectively remade 10 years on by the same writer/director, with an English-speaking cast. Like Haneke’s film, there’s an element of class conflict in Borgman, though the politics are muted.

In the end, Borgman compels and confounds in equal measure.

Prompted by Warmerdam’s movie, I saw another unusual foreign movie: the Greek film Dogtooth. Cowritten and directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, it was a 2011 Foreign Film Oscar nominee. Like Borgman, Lanthimos’ film is one of a kind, though it’s easy to detect the same aesthetic that fashioned the bizarre world of The Lobster, the director’s first English-language film.

In a contemporary setting, Dogtooth focuses on an upper-middle-class family as prisoners of the fenced-in estate—except for the dad. He’s told the three children, two girls and a boy in their late teens, that the outside world is utterly inimical. The mom may be a willing accomplice or a victim; it’s not clear.

The father teaches his definition of words, but not their actual meaning. Planes in the sky are toys. Cats are monsters. No one’s allowed to step outside the estate’s gates, where the mother and kids kneel and bark like dogs.

The father’s controlling plans include providing a passive sex partner for his son. An employee in Dad’s factory, the woman is blindfolded when going to and from the house, and forbidden to bring in anything from the outside. She sneaks in VHS tapes of Jaws and Rocky, with comic and disturbing consequences … before this, the kids had seen only family films.

The title Dogtooth refers to the father’s dictum that his children can venture into outside when they lose their canine teeth, setting up the older daughter’s ultimate rebellious act.

Provocative, open-ended and (yes!) darkly comic, Dogtooth is a worthy companion to Borgman.

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