The death of the American director Paul Mazursky this week, at the age of 84, is a reminder of a period in the late sixties and early seventies that was steeped in European art cinema. From his Fellini homage Alex in Wonderland, to the Godard-nodding An Unmarried Woman, to his Bergman-inspired Scenes from a Mall, Mazursky repeatedly drew inspiration from across the Atlantic. One of his biggest successes, Down and Out in Beverly Hills, with Bette Midler, Nick Nolte and Richard Dreyfuss, was adapted from Jean Renoir’s 1930s classic Boudou Saved from Drowning, about an insolent tramp who turns the lives of a middle-class family upside down.
Boudou, as the irrational, menacing underground figure threatening middle-class respectability, never quite goes away. Leos Carax recreated him, in an even more anarchic form, as the sewer-dwelling Merde, both in the omnibus film Tokyo! and his 2012 feature Holy Motors. Now Boudou’s back, under the name of Borgman, in Dutch director Alex van Warmerdam’s black comedy of the same name, which is also steeped in classic European influences. The inspirations include Boudou Saved from Drowning and Michael Haneke’s home-invasion film Funny Games, with the added surreal elements of Luis Bunuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgoisie. Borgman is a perfectly crafted but airless allegory of contemporary European class warfare which, I think, is supposed to be funny.
The film begins with a priest leading a posse of armed men through the woods to rout a trio of men who have created underground bunkers for themselves. One of them, the scruffy Borgman (Jan Bijvoet), escapes the attack. Shortly afterward, he shows up at the sprawling suburban estate of a businessman, Richard (Jeroen Perceval), and his artist wife Marina (Hadewych Minis) and asks to use their shower. Though he is beaten and sent away, Borgman returns and persuades Marina to let him hide inside the garden shed while he recovers from Richard’s attack. Feeling both guilty about her husband’s behaviour and sexually attracted to the cooly presumptuous intruder, Marina is a push-over. Her guilt serves as a gateway to an incrementally escalating horror show, graduating from head games to outright violence.
Soon, Borgman has managed to find his way inside the family’s modernist bunker of a home, ingratiating himself with the three angelic-looking children and turning the family – husband, wife, children and comely Danish nanny – against each other. Borgman’s first overt violence involves forcibly replacing the gardener – Richard doesn’t recognize the newly-coiffed stranger – and taking up permanent residence on the estate. He installs a creepy crew of deadpan gardeners, aided by a malevolent pair of women who pose as a doctor and her assistant.
There’s no doubt the family is begging for a comeuppance. Richard is a conniving corporate weasel who won’t hire a non-white gardener without a diploma (“We’re from the West. It’s affluent. That’s not our fault”). Marina blasts her child for ruining a teddy bear, especially since some Third World child in a sweatshop went to a lot of trouble to make it. The black humour and perversity can occasionally startle, but the film takes far too much sadistic delight in punishing these entitled dopes. What’s desperately missing – and what ultimately makes Borgman feel complacent and derivative – is any sense of Boudou’s freewheeling anarchy, or the idea that the rich need to be liberated from their paranoid materialism rather than punished for it.