a beginner’s guide to: paul verhoeven

The lowdown on the bad taste auteur, with a helping hand from his latest star Isabelle Huppert.

by Colin Crummy
10 March 2017, 4:05pm


When Paul Verhoeven swept the board at the 1996 Razzies - the awards ceremony dedicated to honouring the worst in American cinema that particular year - the director turned up to accept the seven (out of a possible 11) gongs for his film Showgirls.

An unprecedented move at the time, but it was the high-water mark of Paul Verhoeven doing Paul Verhoeven. Here was a guy, a Dutch filmmaker who relocated to the U.S. it seemed solely to test the cinema going public's taste for bad taste. And boy did we take the bait.

We revelled in Robocop's ultra-violence while slapping it with an 18 cert and couldn't stop talking about Sharon Stone's notorious uncrossing of legs in Basic Instinct. Showgirls may have got a lot of very bad reviews as well as awards for being very very bad, but it has endured beyond most cinema of the period.

Verhoeven's latest, Elle, a rape revenge black comedy starring Isabelle Huppert, has proved another talking point in a career made up almost totally of talking points. An awards season favourite since it debuted at Cannes last year it has also - for its depiction of a woman seemingly unfazed by a sexual assault - been subject to outcry. But we wouldn't expect any less, would we?

Verhoeven's oeuvre sets out to wrong foot its audience. So you need to be prepared. Here's a brief overview of what to expect from the master of arthouse exploitation...

Expect to be triggered...
Elle has proved triggering. Huppert's character Michèle plays cat and mouse with her rapist. The film toys with ideas of sexual violence and our attraction to it. It makes for shocking material but it is what makes Verhoeven a great director, Huppert explains. "He constantly crosses the border between the good and the bad, between the hot and the cold. It's like a rollercoaster. That's why it's disturbing. Where is the good? What is the good? What is the bad? He really triggers you, like he did in Black Book."

He is not afraid to go beyond the boundaries of taste...
Verhoeven lived through Nazi occupation as a child and he has frequently returned to the theme in his cinema, to controversial effect. Starship Troopers featured intergalactic Nazis. Black Book - which marked a return to Dutch cinema - was a smorgasbord of Verhoeven tropes of extreme violence and sexual explicitness (the heroine shaving her pubic hair being the high point of garish sexploitation). It was also, at its core, a Holocaust drama. You can imagine how that combo went down.

He has form on this kind of thing...
One of his earliest Dutch films, Spetters, provoked controversy for its depiction of a straight man who turns gay after being set upon by a gang of leather clad homosexuals. The director left for Hollywood soon after.

He is a genre master...
In Hollywood, Verhoeven reinvented himself as the master of 90s sci-fi with huge hits in Robocop, Total Recall and later, Starship Troopers. Verhoeven gave audiences what they wanted in his 1987 break through Robocop - extreme violence - while under laying his oversized story with themes of fascism and American consumerism.

And he remorselessly genre shifts within films…
Elle is billed as a rape revenge black comedy but it swings between soapy melodrama to stylised thriller to deadpan comedy. It is a disorientating experience. How can you find humour in a story about sexual assault? Verhoeven goes there.

His characters are shape shifters too…
The good are rarely just that in a Verhoeven film. In Elle, he does not attempt to elicit the audience's sympathy for Michèle. Our impression of her is constantly changing. "She's the kind of the person who also reveals people to themselves," Huppert says of the woman who is having an affair with her best friend's husband. Here's Huppert's defence of her character's deceit: "I'm sorry to say that of course she sleeps with her best friend's husband but then this man is not very interesting. So she also reveals something to her friend, in a way."

Let's talk about sex...
Sex is a key component in the Verhoeven shock arsenal. Verhoeven became notorious for his bald championing of Hollywood thriller style in Basic Instinct, which made Sharon Stone's vagina the star of 1992. He wanted to make Elle in America but says no U.S. actress was game. Step forward then, one Isabelle Huppert.

And talking about sex regularly lands him in hot water...
Showgirls was universally panned on release; Elle near universally applauded. But its detractors insist he glorifies sexual violence against women in his film. That the victim is also the CEO of a video games company peddling sexual violence reads like an attempt to bait that audience. But Huppert suggests we don't take the story so literally. "There is something so artificial in the video game which casts an almost artificial light on the film itself. Unconsciously it might make you watch the film itself with the same kind of artificiality as it would be in a video game."

He is the master of moral relativism...
If you want cinema that affirms your moral code, look elsewhere. "I don't think you can expect Paul Verhoeven to give you a message," says Huppert. Do not expect Verhoeven to tow the party line at the cinema.

Elle is in cinemas from 10 March


Text Colin Crummy

Paul Verhoeven
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