The French film Elle, recently selected for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nomination, is soon to be released next month in America, bringing the name Verhoeven back into the limelight — although, perhaps not in the way that we might expect.
Paul Verhoeven elicits controversy. His films are rarely without contention, whether it be in regards to censorship or subject matter. Most people will know him from his most famous Hollywood films: Robocop, Total Recall and Basic Instinct, with their scenes of vivid luridness being as memorable as the period of cinema in which they were made. However, most are unaware that besides being a game changer in Hollywood’s sensitivity to realism in the 80s/90s, Verhoeven not only broadened the landscape of what was accepted and able to be portrayed in the mainstream, he also pioneered what was acceptable in European film, a decade earlier.
When people think of Robocop or Basic Instinct, they tend not to remember the name Verhoeven; special effects maestro Rob Bottin’s iconic Robocop suit springs to mind, along with Sharon Stone’s infamous knickerless interrogation scene — which incidentally became more famous than any of the director’s films. Even Total Recall is best remembered as an Arnold Schwarzenegger film, one that reminded us that you didn’t need to have an amazing actor in order to elicit genuine intrigue from the viewer. That was down to Verhoeven’s ability as both artistic and commercial auteur; his ability to engage different audiences in differing genres, while still painting from the same recognisable signature palette.
After the disastrous Showgirls and mediocre Hollow Man, Verhoeven retreated back to the place where he made his name: his native country, Holland. It was here in 1973 that Verhoeven shocked a generation of filmgoers with his explicit portrayal of sex and youth culture in his first success Turkish Delight. It was also during this period that Verhoeven began to establish the motifs that he would later become synonymous with: war and destruction in Soldier Of Orange, sex and psychotic violence in The 4th Man, duplicity and dual identity in Katie Tippel, all of which are interlaced with scatological humour and a distinct sense of satirical tragicomedy. Although these sentiments came into full fruition with Verhoeven’s later American movies, they clearly found their inception in his early works, which almost act as virtual prequels to his most famous triad of movies (Robocop, Total Recall, Basic Instinct)— now known rather endearingly, as the ‘psychosis trilogy’.
It comes as no surprise then that with his latest film Elle, filmed in French and released at Cannes in May, the esteemed director has once again chosen Europe as the stage for a comeback. Verhoeven’s first film after his initial hiatus from Hollywood was Black Book, filmed in Dutch and released in Holland in 2006, and marked a return to the familiar territory of war he once depicted in 1978 with Soldier Of Orange. Sharing the same backdrop as its predecessor, Black Book revisits the lesser-known tale of the Dutch resistance during the Nazi occupation of the Hague —a period in which Verhoeven lived and clearly draws upon. The theme of survival is vividly recounted from the perspective of Ellis de Vries, who, like many of Verhoeven’s protagonists, is spared no modesty in the realism of her story: she is initially forced into hiding, made a witness to her own family’s murder, succumbed into prostituting her body to a Nazi and literally covered in faeces in a voyage as punishing as Murphy’s in Robocop. This tragic drama of Black Book marked a radical departure from the gore-ridden Sci-Fi films that the majority of his viewers had become accustomed to. And as we shall soon see with the risque subject matter in Elle, Verhoeven continues to demonstrate his competent range and ability as a director who has come full circle.
Anyone who grew up watching Robocop or Total Recall is able to recount their favourite scene whether they know it belongs to Verhoeven or not; the acid deformity of Clarence’s henchman, to the ruthless murder in the boardroom by ED-209, or maybe eyes popping out over blue skies on Mars, to the grotesque “open your mind, Quaid”. But despite being in danger of looking back with rose-tinted spectacles, it’s fair to say that the reason these moments remain revered and memorable is not because they were needlessly juvenile or gratuitous, but because they were actually part of great moviemaking. As the failed remakes of Robocop and Total Recall have proved, today’s rehashed movie culture merely exists to satisfy wider and more lucrative family friendly markets, reminding us of just how many risks and creative freedoms the R-rated directors of Verhoeven’s time once took.
“In Hollywood, plot is more important”, remarked Verhoeven when asked about the differences between making movies in the US compared to Holland. In 1985 with his first American movie Flesh and Blood, he accepts that he made gross failings due to being unaware of the “American way of thinking”. European movies are more inclined to “be about realism and style” rather than plot, in which the audience is challenged rather than made to follow Hollywood’s routine conventions. But with Robocop in 1987, to use his own words, Verhoeven had “stepped into the unknown waters of the United States”, managing to conflate both styles to “make it his own”. Not only did he bring this sensational, provocative European style to the American blockbuster and transcend it, he was able to instill an authentic originality in them that we have rarely seen since.
Verhoeven doesn’t mince his words when it comes to reflecting society’s grottier immoralities, a feeling reaffirmed when speaking at the BFI in London last week, where he reminded his audience that “violence isn’t just part of the world — it’s part of the universe”. Giving examples from the universe’s self-galactic destruction of stars to the destruction of war in Syria, he maintains that “everything gets destroyed”, and therefore “we have to pay attention” when taking responsibility to represent moral reality in film. But this doesn’t make Verhoeven a nihilistic pessimist. The theme of destruction in his films is never without the theme of regeneration; for Vehoeven, in life “everything is dominated by those two themes”. The idea of something — or somebody in the case of Robocop — having to be destroyed in order to gain life is central to the majority of his works, reflecting rather perturbingly how the after-effects of war and aggression not only dominate his films, but Verhoeven himself.
His penchant for transcending genre, particularly sci-fi and the low budget art movie, will no doubt be his legacy. During last week’s insightful talk at the BFI, Verhoeven remarked that the essence of his films was “How to describe reality — and how far to go”. To acknowledge the reality of morality and how to reflect it on screen has often been a bone of contention in cinema, with criticisms of gratuity frequently aimed at directors who choose to depict controversial, vivid scenes, namely of sex and violence. It seems Film tends to get a harder time due to the vividness of its methods, and for being the most verbatim expression of life as we see and experience it. For this reason, Paul Verhoeven will be best remembered as someone who brought the question of film censorship to the forefront of modern film-making. He chose not to shy away from revealing the immoral complexities of life and its violent horror, laying bare the truth for everyone to see. Authenticity makes everything possible.