Cannes 2013: Is ‘Borgman’ this year’s ‘Holy Motors’?

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CANNES, France — The Cannes Film Festival can reliably be counted on to offer at least one envelope-pushing genre-tinged exercise, the kind that makes festgoers marvel and shake their head in equal measure. Last year it was ”Holy Motors,” Leos Carax’s Surrealist collection of stories about a Paris shape-shifter. In 2009, the Greek family-torture movie “Dogtooth” fit the bill.

This year brings another contender for the boldness prize: a Dutch film called “Borgman” about — wait for it — devils and murder conspiracies and child care and class disparity. Since it screened Sunday in the high-profile competition section, the Alex van Warmerdam picture has prompted discussion among filmgoers who say that the first half is great, then it goes off the rails; the first half is shaky then it stabilizes; the whole thing is great and should be lauded; the whole thing is tedious and makes no sense.

The joys of Cannes.

PHOTOS: Cannes Film Festival 2013


A similar discussion attended “Motors,” which played the fantasy card more heavily but nonetheless got a spirited debate going.

Very quickly: “Borgman” is about an apparent vagrant (Jan Bijovet) who, on the run from his forest lair, shows up at the door of an upper-middle-class family, prompting the husband (Jeroen Perceval) to throw him out and the wife (Hadewych Minis) to secretly take pity on him. Before long the vagrant, Camiel, has found ways to insinuate himself into the family (to say how would ruin the fun) and even bring some friends along. And then the sinister, supernatural stuff starts.

The tone never veers from cool and levelheaded (no bludgeoning or closet-jumping here), and even the supernatural elements exist at the margins — it’s not actually clear anyone is using tools beyond the psychological. Yet it’s hardly a stretch to call this a horror movie, with “The Exorcist,” “Funny Games” and even “Arsenic and Old Lace” all in the air (on that last one: if you’re eating or drinking during the movie, you’ll likely stop).

CHEAT SHEET: Cannes Film Festival 2013

When it starts to become clear what is going on in this serene house (three young children and a nanny are involved too), Van Warmerdam ups the ante, leaving audiences either thrilled or fist-waving (see under: earlier discussion).

Given the wealthy targets, the film offers a kind of working-class revenge: an exorcism, if you will, which, like all interesting genre movies, means it’s about something else other than demons.


Like many flashpoint fest films, there’s also a bit of an unknown element behind the camera too, though 61 and with more than a half-dozen features under his belt, Van Warmerdam is little known outside his native Holland.

The film is looking for a distribution deal in the U.S., and this kind of of buzz, needless to say, can help land it one.

Festival chief Thierry Fremaux has developed a reputation for the audacious competition title (Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Only God Forgives,” the much-anticipated revenge tale, will offer the splatter come Wednesday). Haters gonna hate, but debaters will go right on with the debate.


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