The Paul Verhoeven filmography screens at the TIFF Bell Lightbox through April 4th, culminating in a screening of his new “crowdsourced” film, Tricked.
Common wisdom dictates that cynicism and sentimentality are carefully linked, if not outright synonymous. In filmic terms, the most comfortable formulation of that argument is to align, for instance, romantic comedies with socially-acceptable (and, often, utterly noxious) notions of gender politics. Through the deployment of relationships and character profiles that support popular notions of how women and men behave, these movies are able to exploit comfortable mores in order to mainline easy pathos. What’s less common is to consider how that relationship between affect and effect can be subverted, perhaps because it’s relatively rare for truly subversive artists to be handed the proverbial keys to the kingdom.
Enter Paul Verhoeven. From his early Dutch features, including Turks Fruit (Turkish Delight) and Soldaat van Oranje (Soldier of Orange), all the way to his long run of outsized Hollywood blowouts, Verhoeven has demonstrated a serious interest in political and socioeconomic corruption, misogyny, religious salvation, and the culture of violence, among other considerations, with a zeal generally associated with ostentatious cinematic intellectuals like Michael Haneke. Where Haneke’s audience relationship can be charitably described as “combative” (i.e. the relentless finger-wagging of both versions of Funny Games), Verhoeven understands like few other filmmakers do how crowd-pleasing form and content can be used as a potent delivery device for scathing social commentary, though that approach carries the risk of obscuring said commentary completely. The beauty and pleasure of watching Verhoeven is that he both loves and skillfully embodies Hollywood filmmaking, while loathing what it so often stands for, specifically the ways in which it works to reinforce existing relationships of power and exploitation. That puts him in a unique position to diagnose a sick society while reveling in the excesses that allow it to dream.
Those strategies are a little less evident in his comparatively modest early movies. Turkish Delight is, on a thematic level, utterly unlike any of what follows. A warts-and-all depiction of young love and sexual debauchery, it stars early Verhoeven mainstay Rutger Hauer as a freewheeling artist with a serious nihilistic streak who falls for a young woman (Monique van de Ven), to the serious detriment of every other element of both of their lives. Ostensibly a cousin to “erotic dramas” like Bitter Moon or Last Tango In Paris, Delight quickly establishes Verhoeven’s utter disregard for propriety, as well as his underlying humanism, even if the genre manipulation he’s now known for has yet to be established here. What is evident this early is Verhoeven’s ability to smuggle in surprisingly devastating material. For all of the long scenes of van de Ven and Hauer cavorting nude, pranking the art world, and generally ignoring the world outside of Hauer’s bohemian homestead, the concluding scenes manage the sort of rug-pulling emotional devastation that so many would-be tearjerkers fail to elicit, mostly because Verhoeven has invested the material with such convincing, all-consuming decadence that, like Hauer and van de Ven, we can’t anticipate the bottom just falling out. We wind up similarly ambushed by the cruel whims of fate, thanks to Verhoeven’s ability to capture the way our baser impulses can command us.
The genre manipulation starts in earnest with Soldier of Orange, at the time the most expensive film in Dutch history. (That record was later bested by another Verhoeven film, but more on that later.) A WWII spy thriller based on a popular memoir, Orange is extremely tame compared to Verhoeven’s later genre entries, but it provides some early clues as to Verhoeven’s ability to reframe familiar elements of characterization and audience expectation. Hauer is our ostensibly dashing lead, a student-turned-spy who finds himself instrumental in assisting the Dutch government-in-exile, but even a basic scrutinizing of his journey reveals a highly atypical depiction of wartime espionage, as when he tracks an apparent traitor through the streets of London with a tiny pistol worthy of Ian Fleming, only to be caught almost immediately and learn he’s been elegantly duped. The fates of his fraternity brothers, who splinter off into separate-but-intertwined stories, betray Verhoeven’s ability to capture the indifferent cruelty of circumstance. For instance, the most outwardly noble figure, a Jewish boxer, meets an ignoble, early end at the hands of a German firing squad. Most filmmakers tackling the subject of young men in a time of war underline the dehumanizing aspect of conflict, but Verhoeven takes a different approach, emphasizing the consistent ordinariness of these men, their decisions, and their fates, from the utilitarian “romantic” triangle involving a comely British officer to the utterly random demise of a former colleague turned SS officer. An early flash-forward in which we see a postwar Hauer escorting Dutch Queen Wilhelmina back into the Netherlands post-occupation indicates early that he’ll survive the conflict, but Orange’s matter-of-fact presentation of events doesn’t leave room for traditional notions of glory through conflict. only survival via pluck and dumb luck.
Hauer would later reteam with Verhoeven for his most brazen outing yet, which happened to be his first English-language feature. 1985’s Flesh + Blood, a remarkable movie has somehow eluded much discussion, and is long overdue for a serious re-evaluation, as it’s here that Verhoeven finally fuses his populist impulses with his distinctly European intellectual sensibility and his flair for graphic overkill, not to mention folding in his extracurricular obsession with Christianity. (Verhoeven has published a fascinating book, Jesus of Nazareth, about the historical Jesus and how he might approach filming what he believes to be a close approximation of Christ’s life story, based on decades of study.) Set in the early sixteenth century, Flesh + Blood dramatizes and satirizes the battle between barbarism and enlightenment via the misadventures of a violent, charismatic mercenary (Hauer) who, following a betrayal at the hands of a lord, commands a motley crew of former brothers-in-arms by convincing them that he is to be their spiritual leader. Hauer and his entourage capture the fiancée (Jennifer Jason Leigh) of the lord’s son (Tom Burlinson), then take over a plague-ravaged castle and proceed to, briefly, live like kings.
Flesh + Blood might be the most straightforwardly subversive film Verhoeven has made to date. Early scenes between Burlinson and Leigh, with the characters prancing about absurdly amidst a soft-focus idyll, then proceeding to fuck under a the site of a ghastly hanging, underline the fact that Verhoeven is uniquely devoted to highlighting the outlandish extremities of the setting, with none of the romanticism sometimes associated with it. The world depicted is ruled by superstition and disease. The film was marketed as a medieval adventure film, but Flesh + Blood is less an epic than a pitched battle between false opposites, with Burlinson’s nobleman turning out to be every bit as vile and ruthless as Hauer’s seemingly indestructible creature of pure venality. Relentlessly bleak and misanthropic, the film lacks Verhoeven’s subtle humanism, but makes up for it with sheer, filthy contrarian verve. The film is slightly hampered by its only-in-the-’80s lightning-powered climax, but it’s still long overdue for rediscovery by critics.
Of course, Verhoeven’s Hollywood breakthrough needs neither introduction nor defense. RoboCop is one of the most justly revered blockbuster action movies of all time, but for all of its obvious pleasures (fantastic performances, world-building, one-liners, genuine heart, and breathtaking violence), what sets it apart from its contemporaries is something both simpler and rarer: it has a point of view. Arguing against the unchecked free market in the age of Reagan, RoboCop presents a world where capitalism has grown so efficiently predatory that blood-spitting, henchman-chucking thugs like Kurtwood Smith’s Clarence Boddicker can barely keep pace with its ruthlessness. It’s American Jesus vs. the private sector on the biggest canvas imaginable, with the skyscraper boardrooms of a not-too-distant future as the site of a high-tech Cleansing of the Temple. The notion of the man inside the machine works as a handy metaphor for Verhoeven’s arrival inside the Hollywood system, an industry wherein focus grouping can often result in a homogenized product not unlike the slop that serves as Robo’s “food.” DP Jost Vacano, subbing in for usual DP Jan de Bont, played a large part in the film’s effectiveness, capturing an only marginally altered futurescape that reflects the universe’s utilitarian corporate environment.
RoboCop would become the first in a line of Verhoeven films that produced a lot of hand-wringing and chin-stroking over the implications of screen violence. The fact is that Verhoeven is a fan of all forms of screen violence, and he has never cared about looking after anyone’s sensibilities. In RoboCop alone, violence is allowed to be horrifying and hilarious, realistic and cartoonish, sometimes in the same sequence. Verhoeven is certainly a filmmaker of ideas, but not one with a dogmatic take on the wider ramifications of artificial violence. For him, it’s simply one tool of the trade, albeit a versatile one.
Indeed, Verhoeven doesn’t do PG-13, not even when tackling an even bigger-budget action/sci-fi outing. Total Recall, derived from a Philip K. Dick story, pairs Verhoeven with absurd Austrian superhero Arnold Schwarzenegger for what is, thematically speaking, a pale echo of RoboCop, albeit one infused with a gonzo panache all its own. While it preserves that film’s anti-corporate ethos (complete with a head-honcho villain portrayed by the inimitably slimy Ronny Cox), it trades earthbound concerns for a far-flung journey to Mars and the new still-to-come province of virtual reality. A masterpiece only in terms of its practical effects (Rob Bottin, who worked on RoboCop, contributes even more impressive work here) and its willingness to double down on the more esoteric and outlandish corners of its premise, Recall doesn’t have quite the transgressive punch of its predecessor. A lot of that comes from the banal virgin/whore dichotomy that emanates from the conflict between Schwarznegger’s “real” wife, the comparatively demure revolutionary played by Rachel Ticotin, and the openly deceptive blonde superbitch embodied by Sharon Stone. It’s here that it starts to become difficult to separate Verhoeven’s deployment of familiar tropes for satirical ends from simply acquiescing to the contours of a script to produce a coherent vision in the face of so many moving parts. The film is notable, however, for being one of the few wherein the dream vs. reality paradox is equally supportable and equally satisfying in either direction.
On that subject, it seems prudent to skip ahead to 1995’s Showgirls, one of the most infamous flops ever made, a supposed “MGM musical” (as Verhoeven put it) whose very existence was dependent on a specific set of circumstances. A $45 million, NC-17-rated backstage drama of bad manners, there will never be again be anything remotely like it, even if Joe Eszterhas’s frequently deplorable script is built on hoary, dependable showbiz-movie clichés. That the film even exists is the product of bizarre, never-to-be-repeated circumstances. Eric Henderson over at Slant has already written up an amazing defense (that’s four stars, not zero), including how it wears its gritty humanism on its glittery sleeve, so it’s only worth adding here that the filmshould really be watched twice in the same sitting, first in its standard format, then with humorist David Schmader’s hilarious, informative commentary, entitled “The Greatest Movie Ever Made.” (There’s a strong case to be made for feature commentaries by knowledgeable enthusiasts unconnected to the actual production.) That enables one to admire Verhoeven’s mind-boggling vision and Elizabeth Berkley’s admirably career-exploding performance, as well as a comprehensive education on just what makes the movie so singular and, yes, hilarious. Pay no mind to the warring factions trying to convince you it’s either a secret work of subversive genius or Hollywood at its most cluelessly campy: it’s really both at once.
Despite what some would have you believe, there’s no such ambiguity going on under the surface of Verhoeven’s return to sci-fi, 1997’s acerbic, brilliant Starship Troopers, which found him once again pairing up with Ed Neumeier, who also scripted RoboCop. Troopers isn’t quite as singular as that movie, but it’s a fine spiritual successor that might as well take place a few decades later in the same, hyper-privatised universe. Loosely adapted from Robert A. Heinlen’s militaristic novel of the same name, Neumeier and Verhoeven work in tandem to create a future wherein humans square off against a grotesque alien foe. Unlike most movies detailing interspecies conflict, however, the “bugs” aren’t an invading force, merely a retaliatory one. Using Riefenstahl and Star Wars as stylistic touchstones, Verhoeven crafts a tactile universe, relying on an innovative mix of CGI and practical effects that has barely aged at all. Even more striking than the visuals, though, is the forcefulness of the movie’s anti-war message, which is delivered in the guise of a straightforward space actioner so viscerally exciting that many moviegoers (and a surprising number of critics) missed the joke the first time around. On the cast and director commentary track (surely one of the most entertaining recorded), Verhoeven openly spars with stars Casper van Dien and Denise Richards when they make tentative attempts to probe the film’s deeper meaning. “War makes fascists of us all!”, he insists, is the film’s thesis, plain and simple. That single-mindedness limits the movie to some degree, preventing it from tapping into Verhoeven’s humanistic impulses, but it’s still absolutely loaded with singular moments, from the lovingly insipid “prom” sequence bolstered by Mazzy Star, to the Full Metal Jacket-style training segment, to the scene that surely launched the Neil Patrick Harris renaissance, wherein a psychic/psychotic Doogie Howser, MD dons a strikingly Nazi-esque outfit and declares a particularly cruel victory. (NPH is the Gina Gershon of Starship Troopers, the performer who most obviously Gets It.) Oh, and a character gets a knife through the hand, just so we remember that Jesus is never too far from Verhoeven’s mind, even in the depths of outer space.
After 2000’s Hollow Man failed to make waves (Verhoeven himself has disowned it), Verhoeven returned to his homeland and the subject matter of WWII to make what remains his last widely-distributed feature, Zwartboek (Black Book). A spiritual sibling to Soldier of Orange, the movie has the appearance of a relatively austere period piece compared to Verhoeven’s Hollywood output, but in reality it’s every bit as intent on using the medium of film to flip the expected norms of period war movies as Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, only it accomplishes its feats of subversion without altogether rewriting history. (Though it does invent some history.) In perhaps the greatest lead performance in any Verhoeven film, Carice van Houten (currently being wasted in a tonally limited role as Melisandre on Game of Thrones) stars as a Jewish nightclub singer who, as with Hauer in Soldier of Orange, becomes deeply enmeshed in the Resistance.
Juxtaposing Black Book and its 1977 predecessor is instructive in terms of showcasing both Verhoeven’s growth as a polished genre stylist and his consistent contrarian streak. Black Book places a much greater premium on setpieces and double-crosses, but the sense that he and returning screenwriter Gerard Soeteman (working from an original concept this time, with some inspiration drawn from Verhoeven’s reminiscences of the occupation) approach their subject with a kind of reverence for the human toll of war, as well as a devious glee in upending cinematic representations of the period. That means we get a dashing, conflicted SS officer (Sebastian Koch) to go with the usual assortment of villainous Krauts, a Dutch resistance that’s both daring and courageous as well as frequently divided and sometimes catastrophically misguided, and, most crucially, a sense of heightened danger and cruelty after the end of the war. The film’s pervasive crudity – most memorably, not necessarily in a positive sense, extending to a sequence involving a literal dousing of shit – mirrors the unending perversity of circumstance, culminating in one of the most loaded, bitterly ironic final shots in recent memory. If Verhoeven never gets around to another big-budget outing, Black Book is a stunning, confident restatement of purpose: no one else makes movies quite like this.
Verhoeven holds a strange place in the history of film auteurs. He’s nearly as daring a stylist as Brian de Palma, the subject of much scholarly discussion over the last decade, but Verhoeven places a much higher premium on the screenplay as a delivery device for social commentary, rather than just imagery. His films are too widely admired to be “reclaimed” by the likes of the so-called vulgar auteurists, yet still far too populist and genre-enmeshed to be taken seriously by many others. He’s also one of the few directors ever to have made the leap from Europe to America (and back) without sacrificing a scrap of individuality. His films are now being remade at a steady rate, from 2012’s Total Recall to José Padilha’s developmentally troubled take on RoboCop; Starship Troopers may also be in the works, but the poor performance of both films may have finally shuttered that one. It’s perhaps through what’s missing these PG-13 reincarnations that we can get the truest sense of what Verhoeven brings to the table. It’s unfortunate that his attempts to adapt Jesus of Nazareth into a film haven’t panned out yet; multiple screenwriters have been tasked with translating it to the screen, but none have satisfied Verhoeven as of yet. It has the potential to be the ultimate Verhoeven project, an almost comically brazen yet intellectually sound take on sacred subject matter, to be displayed on the widest of canvases, like Pasolini with popcorn.
(Note: I did not touch on The Fourth Man, Basic Instinct, or Hollow Man as I see them as lesser entries in Verhoeven’s filmography. I have yet to see Spetters or Katie Tippel, which accounts for their absence.)
— Simon Howell