In Focus: Paul Verhoeven

In 2017, Dutch director Paul Verhoeven finally got the recognition he had been looking for, for so long. With the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film for Elle, he received international acclaim for a film that perfectly fits his oeuvre. Over the years Paul Verhoeven has become the perfect example of a transgressive author, a director who would keep crossing the lines of the acceptable and who would outrage basic morals and sensibilities. And although sex and violence are the main ingredients of his films, he has more to offer than just that.

Sexual Morality

In 1956 the Production Fund for the Dutch Cinema was established and one can argue that this can be marked as the birth of Modern Dutch Cinema. The aim was to improve the continuity and quality of the ever decreasing Dutch Film Industry. Between 1930 and 1958 only fifties films were produced. And 75% of them were directed by a foreign director. With the new production fund there were some favorable new conditions such as a tax free rent for new productions and even 50% support of the total costs. It didn’t really help. Films in the sixties were mostly still shot in black and white, Calvinistic in tone and conservative in style.

But then Verhoeven made Turkish Delight (Turks Fruit), showing a broad audience the impact of the new sexual morality. Verhoeven offered a striking but realistic look on the lives of two very ordinary people. The movie, based on the book by Jan Wolkers, can be considered a true example of transgressive art, just like his next films Katie’s Passion (Keetje Tippel), Descontrol (Spetters) and The Fourth Man (De Vierde Man). These movies offend conservative morality. Sex is depicted as it is, with all reality that comes with it and without considering the applicable movie or art standards.

Hollywood

After the disappointment of Katie’s Passion (Keetje Tippel), Verhoeven directed Soldier of Orange, a very personal film taking place during WW II. The film, based on a true story about the Dutch resistance, depicts the war through the eyes of several Dutch students. It follows them through the beginning of the war, the Nazi occupation and the liberation. Again, Rutger Hauer took the leading role. The film showed Verhoeven’s talent in creating suspense and telling an epic-scale story with very few financial resources. The film would become a major stepping stone for his international career.

The Fourth Man gained praise from the reviewers but failed to deliver at the box office. Verhoeven felt he didn’t get the recognition from the audience he deserved. Holland had become too Calvinistic, too conservative to his liking. He left to go to Hollywood and had an instant breakthrough with Robocop, Total Recall, Basic Instinct and Starship Troopers. And despite the conservative moral in Hollywood: Verhoeven managed to keep the recognizable elements from his earlier films in these big studio productions: sex, brutal violence and dark comedy.

These elements all come together in Verhoeven’s poorly received NC-17 rated film Showgirls, about a stripper trying to make a career in Las Vegas. Verhoeven himself receives 7 Raspberry Awards. The film would eventually become a great success on the home video market, grossing more than 100 million dollars from video rentals.

Moral complexity

In many of Verhoeven’s films, women play an important role. Most of the time they appear to be victims, but watching closer it becomes apparent that these women have full control over their lives. And yes, they aren’t shy in using their sexuality. In Elle, that is exactly what happens. Isabelle Hupert isn’t merely a victim; she is offender too, culminating in a highly controversial and morally complex story. In the light of growing conservatism in Europe and the States, Verhoeven’s transgressive cinema is again urgent. And that may be explains the unexpected success of Verhoevens latest film.

Coen Haver studied Film and Theater Sciences at the University of Utrecht. He is director and producer and regularly hosts film courses.