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Shock and Entertainment: A Paul Verhoeven Retrospective

For more than 45 years, director Paul Verhoeven has been shocking and entertaining audiences, both in his homeland of the Netherlands and in Hollywood, with a series of heady cinematic cocktails that mix explicit violence and sexuality, cutting narratives, plenty of social commentary and levels of moral ambiguity rarely seen in contemporary commercial cinema. Needless to say, his jabs at cinematic propriety have not always found favor with critics and audiences at the time they were released. But to look at them today, divorced from all the controversies that often surrounded them during their initial distributions, one can finally appreciate him as one of the most audacious filmmakers of our time—one of the few whose works could comfortably play in both the toniest of art houses and the sleaziest of grind houses and seem perfectly at home in either one.

Running November 9-23, the “Total Verhoeven” retrospective at New York City's Film Society of Lincoln Center will include everything from a program of his earliest short films to screenings of all his features, many of them being presented in 35mm, to a preview of his latest effort, the brilliant French-made drama “Elle.” The program will also feature appearances from Verhoeven himself, who is scheduled to introduce showings of the infamous Showgirls (1995, pictured at top) and Starship Troopers (1997) as well as post-screening Q&A’s for screenings of his personal breakthroughs “Turkish Delight” (1973) and “Robocop” (1987). Whether reacquainting themselves with old favorites or catching up with some of the more obscure works for the first time, audiences will no doubt come away from these films feeling shocked and amazed, both by the movie's provocative nature and in how they still feel as fresh, edgy and formally daring today as they did when they first came out.

As someone who has long admired Verhoeven for his formally bold cinematic approach, his willingness to subvert the usual genre conventions in audacious ways and his ability to grapple in a forthright manner with subjects that most filmmakers shy away from—sex, violence, religion, moral hypocrisy and the proper pronunciation of “Versace” to name just a few—I feel that this retrospective is a long-overdue tribute to one of the boldest filmmakers around. On the other hand, there are probably others who cannot understand why anyone should give any serious regard to the seemingly sleazo guy responsible for “Showgirls.” Therefore, I would like to present a few arguments as to why Verhoeven is not only worthy of such a tribute but why you should do everything in your power to try to attend it.

Throughout his entire career, Verhoeven has made films in any number of familiar genres—his Dutch efforts include a sex film (“Business is Business” [1971]), a romance (“Turkish Delight”), a historical epic (Keetje Tippel [1975]), a pair of war dramas (“Soldier of Orange” [1977]), a coming-of-age story (“Spetters” [1980]) and an erotic thriller (“The 4th Man” [1983] and his American projects have included a medieval drama (“Flesh & Blood” [1985]), several science-fiction stories (“Robocop,” “Total Recall” [1990] and “Starship Troopers” [1997]), a Hitchcockian thriller (Basic Instinct[1992]), a kinda-sorta rags-to-riches musical (“Showgirls”) and a straight-up horror title (Hollow Man[2000]). However, in nearly every case, Verhoeven has generally shown himself to be less interested in upholding generic conventions than in gleefully subverting them at every turn. 

On the surface, to cite the most obvious example, “Total Recall” appears to be just another one of the big-budget behemoths that Arnold Schwarzenegger cranked out in the 90s, in which he lumbered through ludicrous narratives while racking up enormous body counts along the way. Rather than ignore such implacabilities and the willingness of the audience to overlook them in exchange for a good time at the multiplex, Verhoeven elected to bring them to the forefront by framing the basic premise (ordinary Joe undergoes a memory implant as part of a virtual vacation, learns that he is really a secret agent and goes to Mars to save the entire planet from bad guys) in such a way that audiences can either take the film and all of its ridiculousness at face value or regard the entire thing merely as a construct designed to take an ordinary slob away from his problems for a couple of hours. (In one of the nerviest moments, the guy administering a memory implant tells our hero what he can expect and when the movie ends, we realize that we have just seen every item that he ticked off brought to lurid life). Similarly, both “Robocop” and “Starship Troopers” transcend their borderline fascist premises to offer acerbic takes on corporate and military culture and media manipulation, while those expecting “Showgirls” to be just an expensive version of the usual Skinemax silliness were shocked to find that it was really a corrosive take on the notion of sexual exploitation as entertainment that spent more time implicating viewers than arousing them. In these and in other films, Verhoeven brings a genuine complexity to traditional genre fare that's a refreshing change from the usual multiplex nonsense and illustrates that similar films can be smart and entertaining at the same time.

Even when he is not overtly subverting generic conventions, Verhoeven’s films have shown a willingness to challenge and provoke viewers. In “Soldier of Orange” and “Black Book” (2006, pictured above), he takes what would seem to be one of the most black-and-white subjects imaginable—World War II—and presents it in a manner that admits that even in that particular case, things are not always as cut and dried as they might seem. In the former film, heroic characters prove themselves to be eminently fallible while the more villainous types are allowed moments of genuine humanity. In the latter, a brave Dutch woman (Carice van Houten) goes undercover to spy on a local Gestapo bigwig (Sebastian Koch) for the resistance and not only finds her mark to be the only person who shows her complete loyalty and devotion, but ends up suffering mightily in the aftermath of the war at the hands of fellow countrymen who have mistakenly branded her a collaborator. And "Showgirls," Verhoeven’s meditation on the massive commercial success of "Basic Instinct," pushed the envelope even further, regarding the sex and violence he was putting on display in the name of entertainment and seeing how far audiences were willing to follow him.

Having grown up in The Hague during the German occupation during World War II, Verhoeven saw first-hand the fantastic cruelties that people could inflict on each other and has never shied away from presenting violence in starkly realistic terms. Even in a film like “Soldier of Orange,” one of his most traditional works, his depiction of the realities of combat is at odds with how such things were usually portrayed in those days. This is not to say that Verhoeven is incapable of presenting violence in a more overtly entertaining manner. But when he does do that, he either takes pains to stress how unrealistic the carnage is (as in “Total Recall,” where the mammoth body count racked up by Arnold Schwarzenegger may just literally be all in his mind) or he gives viewers a gut-check to prevent them from becoming too complacent. In “Robocop,” for example, the famous early scene in which a corporate lackey is obliterated by a malfunctioning robot is hilarious in no small part because of the violence's cheerfully over-the-top nature, as well as the darkly comedic dialogue (“Dick, I’m very disappointed.”) However, when heroic cop Murphy (Peter Weller), whom we have barely been introduced to, is taken down and blown apart bit by bit by bad guys while they chortle their own snarky one-liners, Verhoeven stages it all in a manner that's genuinely disturbing to watch. It not only forces viewers to grapple with the entire question of the meaning and morality of screen violence but it keeps them slightly on edge throughout the rest of the film; he doesn't allow them to simply write all the brutality off as just being fun and games. His approach to sexual material over the years has followed similar lines by eschewing the usual airbrushed Hollywood fantasies for something rawer and realer, even going so far as to include male nudity in the mix, with results that still have the ability to startle viewers today. When he does utilize a more typically glamorous approach, as in “Basic Instinct” and the infamous swimming pool scene in “Showgirls,” he deliberately emphasizes their unrealistic nature to such a degree that they more or less wind up commenting on audience expectations, in ways that are as wickedly funny as they are arousing.

Throughout his career, Verhoeven has often been accused of being a misogynistic filmmaker because of the amount of nudity and sex in his films. This cannot be denied but what also cannot be denied is that, as has proven to be the case with the similarly misunderstood Brian De Palma, Verhoeven’s most interesting films—such as “Keetje Tippel,” “The 4th Man,” “Showgirls” and “Black Book”—have tended to be the ones based around female characters who prove themselves to be just as smart, strong and resourceful as their male counterparts—more so in most cases because they are able to manipulate the guys with their sexuality in order to achieve their goals without falling into that trap themselves. When the female characters are not front and center, they are always seen as more than glorified appendages to the hero—even though they find themselves in overtly masculine milieus, the women in “Robocop,” “Total Recall” and “Starship Troopers” are not only treated as equals, but Verhoeven doesn’t go out of his way to make a big deal out of this approach. By comparison, his male characters tend to be the ones who are all messed up, both physically and/or emotionally, or allow their own stunted ideas about women to eventually lead them to their doom.

Although justly celebrated for his gifts as a technical filmmaker, a close look at his oeuvre reveals that he is wildly underrated in regards to his undeniable skill with actors, especially in regards to newcomers. “Turkish Delight” made instant stars out of unknowns Rutger Hauer and Monique van de Ven, who made the potentially dodgy story about a crazy, passionate and ultimately doomed romance into something that was convincing both as drama and romance thanks to the power of their performances. (Hauer would go on to make five more films with Verhoeven and van de Ven would star in the historical drama “Keeje Tippel.”) A few years later, the same thing would happen with actress Renee Soutendijk, first in the scene-stealing role of the ambitious young woman who sees a trio of motocross-loving pals as her ticket out of a dreary small-town existence in “Spetters” and later as the possible femme fatale in the wickedly funny psycho-sexual nightmare “The 4th Man” (pictured above). On “Total Recall,” he gave the key supporting role of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s duplicitous wife to journeyman actress Sharon Stone and then catapulted her to international stardom with her indelible portrayal of short-skirted evil in “Basic Instinct.” For “Black Book,” a film that told a World War II story through a rare female perspective, he cast Carice van Houten and she gave a stunning performance that found her undergoing the acting equivalent of an Olympic marathon and hitting perfect 10s in every category. Hell, I even think that the usually maligned performance that he got out of Elizabeth Berkley in “Showgirls” is more inspired than it usually is given credit for—yes, she approaches every scene with a wild-eyed ferocity (even when doing something as benign as pour catsup onto her french fries) but since her character is a practically feral creature let loose in what is itself essentially a dog-eat-dog world, her relentless histrionics actually fit the role perfectly, making her role far more memorable than it might have been in the hands of a more restrained actress.

Of course, Verhoeven has had the occasional creative stumble or two over the years: the invisible man thriller “Hollow Man,” although impressive from a technical standpoint, is a disappointingly conventional take on material that could have been handled in a far more perverse and twisted manner; Tricked(2012), an odd experiment in collective filmmaking (the screenplay began as four pages posted on the Internet with the public coming up with their own scenes that would be put together into a final narrative) feels like the kind of exercise that Mike Figgis might have done a decade earlier. But as this retrospective shows, he has scored more often than not with his universally celebrated films (such as “Turkish Delight,” “The 4th Man,” “Robocop” and “Black Book”), which standing the test of time, and his more critically maligned ones (including “Spetters,” “Showgirls” and the savagely effective satire “Starship Troopers”) look better than ever. 

If I were to suggest one of his lesser-known titles as one to seek out here, it would be the historical drama “Keetje Tippel” (1975). Based on the memoirs of Neel Doff, a Dutchwoman who rose from abject poverty to social prominence during the rise of socialism in the Netherlands, the film followed the journey of Katie (van de Ven in a wonderful performance) as she learns to use her sexuality to escape her awful circumstances, first by being forced into prostitution by her family in order to feed them, and then by becoming an artist’s model, a move that allows her to enter better social circles and improve her standing in society until she is able to meet and marry a rich socialist. While this film tends to get a little overlooked in discussions of Verhoeven’s Dutch films, it now stand as one of his more interesting films from this period because it marked the first time that he presented a serious-minded story that was centered around a female character and told in their voice. Though a hit when it came out, it did not quite reach the heights of its predecessors and tends to get overlooked in studies of his work but if any of Verhoeven’s films from this era deserves a reappraisal, this is the one.

Then there is "Elle" (pictured above), a movie that has been generating accolades and controversy in equal measure since it premiered earlier this year at Cannes; it's not only one of the very best films of the year but one of Verhoeven’s finest as well, a work so provocative that even his most devoted fans may find themselves blindsided by what he has in store for them this time around. Working in France for the first time, the film stars the great Isabelle Huppert as Michele, the head of a video game company specializing in brutal fantasy games. In the opening moments of the film, she is attacked and brutally raped inside her own lavish home. However, for personal reasons dating back to a dark childhood trauma, she chooses not to report it to the police—though she does blithely mention it at a dinner to her ex-husband, her business partner and the partner’s husband, with whom she is having an affair. But, she is not about to let her assailant get away with robbing her, even temporarily, of the sense of total control by which she lives every aspect of her life. Instead, she begins her own investigation as to the identity of her attacker in the hopes of getting back what he took from her. How she goes about this and what happens as a result, I will leave for you to discover but hardly anyone will be able to anticipate the jaw-dropping twists and turns in store.

Although “Elle” is technically a revenge fantasy, I suppose, it is one unlike any other that you have seen. Instead of a tragically defiled innocent person at its center, it features a woman who consciously refuses to accept any of the trappings of victimhood and whose cutting demeanor towards everyone in her particular orbit makes her anything but sympathetic. As for her plan to track her assailant down, it is borne less out of a simple desire for revenge—her reaction to her actual physical violation is ambiguous at best—and more out of a wish to give her attacker the same loss of control that she felt by taking charge of the entire situation. This is a character who is not afraid to be cruel, cutting and arrogant or to use her undeniable sexuality to help her get exactly what she wants whenever she wants. In other words, it is a role that almost seems tailor-made for Huppert, who has become one of our most celebrated actresses precisely for playing the kind of characters that most actresses shy away from so as not to ruin their screen personas. The material clearly sparked something in her because her work as Michele is quite possibly the best performance she has ever delivered for the way that she effortlessly brings viewers over to her side even as she refuses to soften the character at all in order to engender the usual kind of audience sympathy.

As for Verhoeven, he is clearly firing on all creative cylinders here and has come up with a film that is at once wholly original and yet still a thematic piece with many of his key works. If Michele finds herself temporarily floundering from her loss of control, there is never a moment when we feel that Verhoeven has anything but the firmest of grasps on the proceedings even as he takes all the expected tropes of the rape-revenge narrative and scatters them to the four winds while juggling a number of subplots that might have cluttered up a lesser film but which all end up tying together into a satisfying whole. Most surprisingly—or perhaps not, depending on your familiarity with Verhoeven—is just how funny the whole thing is, albeit in the darkest manner imaginable with the highlight being an acidly amusing Christmas party that could have come straight out of a Bunuel film. Formally dazzling and dramatically transgressive in equal measure, “Elle” is a stunner from its grabber of an opening to its equally memorable final images. It proves without a doubt that, despite being at an age when filmmakers tend to start repeating themselves ad nauseam in between trips on the Lifetime Achievement Award circuit, Paul Verhoeven remains one of the most daring and vibrant filmmakers of our time.

The Film Society of Lincoln Center's “Total Verhoeven” retrospective runs November 9-23. All screenings will take place at the Walter Reade Theater. For information on showtimes, ticket availability and more, click here.

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