Perfect Perversion: The Feature Films of Paul Verhoeven (Part Two)

In which Jacob Knight spends a ton of time examining the Dutch auteur's brilliant but controversial body of work.

This article is in honor of Paul Verhoeven's Elle, which you should totally see and can buy ticket for here.

The most famous shot of Paul Verhoeven’s career revolves around a pussy.

Not just any pussy, mind you, but the finely manicured lady parts of one Sharon Stone, who uncrosses and then re-crosses her legs whilst being interrogated by a room full of sweaty, leering male authority figures in Basic Instinct(’92). Essentially, these fleeting frames of shadow-cloaked genitals, plus the reaction they elicit from both the woman’s inquisitors (not to mention the audience), sum up a solid subsection of Verhoeven’s interests. He loves women, especially powerful ones, and the way they wield their respective sexualities as weapons. It’s just one of the many contradictions that mark his body of work as being utterly beguiling. In a sense, he’s the ultimate “have my cake and eat it, too” cinematic artist. There’s no doubt Verhoeven strives to titillate with this brief glimpse of beaver, yet also wants to feel intellectually superior while doing so. He’s barely in control of his own kinks and fetishes, exploiting them just as much as he’s exploring them onscreen.

The key to unlocking Verhoeven’s filmography is his uncertainty about the very things he’s attracted to. Sex and violence do not possess any moral façade within his movies; they’re merely tools utilized by characters in order to accomplish individual goals. Like Alfred Hitchcock, Verhoeven is a European-cum-Hollywood filmmaker who exhibits a mastery of craft, but does so in a way that almost feels fretful and flabbergasted. Male sexual anxiety becomes an extension of both directors’ works, and the abuse that angst generates has often led to accusations of abhorring women. However, this indictment often discounts the fact that Verhoeven never lets his male protagonists off the hook, and often damns them for their own imprudent misdeeds. When combined with the over the top sci-fi allegories he’s created that explore humankind’s predisposition toward fascism (‘87’s RoboCop; ‘97’s Starship Troopers), it becomes clear that he despises the majority of mankind, as none of us (at least in his filmic universes) deserve the existences we’ve been granted by God. We waste them trying to dominate both our own and other species, instead of living in harmony. This attitude generates a cold, distancing effect that’s hard to grasp for most mall crowds, as he’s clearly producing populist-minded pictures while simultaneously believing he’s better than those filling the seats.

Perhaps this misanthropy was born out of being a first hand witness to the ultimate evils humans are capable of. Born in Amsterdam on July 18, 1938, Verhoeven was a small child when the Nazis invaded Holland during the spring of ‘40. Though they’d only occupy his country until he was seven years old, the director’s touched upon the psychological impact these events had on his developing brain. Having discovered the bodies of shot down Allied pilots and seen propaganda reels projected in Dutch cinema houses, Verhoeven once commented that peace seemed strange in relation to the atrocities of war he’d been brought up with. Though it’s always a dodgy proposition to try and diagnose an artiste’s mental preoccupations based on half-sketched autobiographical narratives, the temptation to draw conclusions in conjunction with his work is too great. Young Verhoeven observed what hate could do when allowed to run rampant, and it painted his earliest memories of people with the worst possible palette. Concurrently, propaganda movies taught him that cinema could relay the lies of its creators; skewed perspectives that hid true intentions of mainstream art.

Verhoeven’s oeuvre can be divided into two distinct halves. First were the Netherlands-produced features after his brief stint shooting documentaries for the Royal Navy and a career in narrative TV (where a 12-episode adventure series established him as a popular director). Then there’s his American genre work, where he integrated unique motion picture propensities into the Hollywood studio system. Like Douglas Sirk, Verhoeven became a tongue-in-cheek student of the United States’ filmmaking fads, tackling projects with mass appeal while never abandoning the captivations he cultivated during his years in Holland. Wrestling with sexual identity, enthralled by angular femme fatales, and punctuated by blasts of extreme, gory violence, Verhoeven produced some of the most debauched, hilarious and upsetting movies in Hollywood’s history. In short, he never lost his taste for perversion; often utilizing it to smuggle subversive material into what could otherwise be regarded as innocuous popcorn cinema. Judgment became his currency – slyly scolding the populous as they strained to comprehend these twisted amusement park attractions.

Continued from part one - "Dutch Delights"

II. Hollywood Fascism and Fucking

While Flesh + Blood (’85) was the beginning of Paul Verhoeven’s career working with American studios (Orion Pictures bankrolled most of the movie), it was also the end of his long artistic affair with Rutger Hauer. A medieval adventure following a band of mercenaries, the shoot was plagued by numerous on set battles between the director and actor. In interviews, Verhoeven has emphatically stated that it was the worst experience of his life, and that he even considered quitting filmmaking thanks to the setbacks he encountered, as Orion requested change after change to Soeteman’s script. Verhoeven was insistent on crafting a loose visual representation of the Middle Ages, where there were no romanticized heroes. On the other side, the studio wanted something closer to the war picture he produced with Soldier of Orange, and Hauer desired to cut his streak of onscreen villains short. The end result is a compromised mess that finds Verhoeven trying to buck against both his own meticulous visual style as well as the moneymen – a rocky commencement to what would eventually become a storied career in American commercial filmmaking. Sadly, Verhoeven and Hauer would never work together again, as the bad blood brewed behind the scenes was too much for either to bear. The director needed a miracle in order to keep his creative drive going, and instead he found a robot policeman battling corporately funded gangsters.

RoboCop is most certainly a masterpiece, though it’s not necessarily Verhoeven’s defining masterpiece. A dystopian cyberpunk live action fascist cartoon, even if you stripped away all the sci-fi elements, it would still feel like an outsider’s satirical State of the Union Address (corporate greed capitalizing on war torn inner cities feels all too prescient thirty years on). Brimming with over the top violence (it was originally awarded an ‘X’ thanks to Rob Bottin’s copious blood squibs) and a bevy of faux news broadcasts/product placement (personal favorite: the atomic panic take on “Battleship”, “NUKEM”), RoboCop is Paul Verhoeven Overdrive. Yet even amidst the excess, you can sense the director flexing filmic muscles; his camera prowling coed locker rooms at the Old Detroit police station, presenting an arena of pain from the ground up that’s grimy and lived-in. He’s capturing the future in all its flesh meets machine magnificence – man made mechanisms of anti-human carnage.

Once RoboCop’s enormous entertainment value wears off (if that’s even possible), a classic Verhoeven question remains: can a man’s soul survive in a world that’s practically built on greed and death? Officer Murphy (Peter Weller) is shot dead and dismembered by a gang of underworld thugs, only to be corporately reconstructed as the titular super-agent, his humanity stripped away in favor of rudimentary “protect and serve” modes and objectives. But memories of Murphy’s family slowly trickle back, while his tough as nails partner (Nancy Allen – the closest thing the movie has to Verhoeven’s archetypical badass femme) inadvertently and purposefully coaxes recollections. Along the way are gun battles, explosions, talking drone tanks, and men mutated by toxic waste that elevate RoboCop to a level of anti-reality (or “super-reality”, per Verhoeven himself) previously unheard of within the director’s filmography. The yuks at America’s expense may be dispassionate and even mean spirited, but there’s a beating heart that cannot be denied as Basil Poledouris’ heroic score rises to preposterous levels. It’s the first of several sci-fi weird outs Verhoeven produced after leaving his native shores, and arguably still the best, even if his crowning American achievement wouldn’t come for five more years.

Male fantasy is the primary fuel Total Recall (’90) runs off of. Only instead of reveling in the sexual reveries of Quaid (Arnold Schwarzenegger), its brawny protagonist, Verhoeven’s Philip K. Dick adaptation (which sports a co-screenwriting credit from Alien scribe Dan O’Bannon) plays like a runaway daydream of superspy thrills. Memory implants, psychic mutants, and intergalactic revolution are only a few of the foibles contained within the breakneck two hour runtime of this inexplicable commercial hit, as we fall down the rabbit hole of one man’s wish to escape his mundane existence and become a hero to the beleaguered population of the Red Planet. Whether or not it’s all a schizoid hallucination contained to Quaid’s consciousness is up for the viewer to decide, as Verhoeven never really seems interested in providing a straight answer. So while Total Recall is ostensibly impersonal in comparison to even RoboCop (despite Ronny Cox portraying another avatar for Caucasian totalitarianism), it still cozily fits into his filmography thanks to the movie’s obsession with male delusions of grandeur. The slyly cynical ending even reveals that, for Verhoeven, reality and fantasy are equally untrustworthy. The only difference is that you happen to be important in one and not the other.

Basic Instinct is perhaps the pinnacle of Verhoeven’s perversion. Attracted to the raw sexuality of Joe Eszterhas’ spec screenplay (which was bought by producer Mario Kassar for a cool $3 million), the director swore up and down that he wouldn’t make the movie with actors who had any hesitation going completely nude and fucking on screen. Verhoeven was so infatuated with these primal moments of carnality that he storyboarded every thrust, needing Michael Douglas and Sharon Stone to understand how intimate and sweaty their onscreen fuck sessions were going to get. Thankfully, the movie stars were game (Stone especially – developing a rapport with the filmmaker that reportedly resulted in the infamous aforementioned crotch shot). Both threw themselves into the sordid story of a brutal detective’s inquiry into Catherine Tramell, an almost supernaturally manipulative seductress who may have stabbed her last lover to death with an ice pick. It’s a cat and mouse game where sex becomes violence, each encounter bruising and primal, routine rendezvous escalating to near elemental levels of flesh pummeling flesh. Penetration results in the death of decorum, as obsession transmutes both into one-track monsters.

It’d be easy to boil Basic Instinct down to a number of Verhoeven’s thematic fixations – unchecked male libido and possession, the control a woman’s sex takes over her lesser halves – but really the movie operates on a heightened level of cinematic pretense (thanks in part to the auteur’s reteaming with Jan de Bont) that renders most critical dissection somewhat inconsequential. This is a movie that knows it’s a movie, celebrating its own historic lineage (Verhoeven openly acknowledges to wholesale theft from Hitchcock’s Vertigo) whilst bringing the cultish European giallo subgenre to ‘90s mall crowds. It’s a wild, sensual slice of entertainment that presents its blonde temptress as Satan Herself. Catherine Tramell is the female Moriarty of trashy erotic thrillers, always one step ahead of her own Sherlock Holmes while we’re constantly playing catch up with the horny, hateful investigator. It’s as unhinged and unlikely a Hollywood blockbuster as there ever was, generating controversy via its refusal to deal with fucking in any sort of respectable fashion. Kink is king in this universe of duplicitous massacre artists and the ones who pursue them, as Verhoeven crafts the perfect sequel to his best Dutch film, The 4th Man.

Misunderstanding of Verhoeven’s work hit an all-time high with the now legendary debacle that is Showgirls. Re-teaming with Joe Eszterhas, it’s a completely earnest glitz and glam representation of Las Vegas strippers in all their sleazy glory. Some have interpreted the picture as being another vintage slice of Verhoeven satire – this time taking on America’s tastes in both sex and entertainment – but the director has roundly rejected that reading. Yet the absence of burlesque intentions indicates that Verhoeven was making a genuine stab at neon washed plastic melodrama, and that we’re supposed to take Nomi (Elizabeth Berkley) and her climb up the mountain of American stardom at face value. That would mean Verhoeven is skewering the concept of fame itself, and the narcissistic nature it breeds inside all who buy into the worth of having their face plastered on a billboard – name emblazoned for all to read and recognize. It’s a cynic’s version of A Star is Born (or All About Eve), amplifying and skewering the tropes of “starry-eyed dreamer” pictures while flaunting a ton of T&A.

That Showgirls continues to be embraced by many as a “camp classic” (many shows coming complete with a condescending live commentary by David Schmader) only speaks to Verhoeven’s utter refusal to play toward any traditional notion of “good taste”. He’s making a movie that wallows in exploitation, and allows the audience to interpret its more scandalous elements as they see fit. In essence, the show becomes one of the great examples of Susan Sontag’s argument that “camp” is “seriousness that fails”. However, that doesn’t mean Showgirls is a failure. Instead, it’s a tacky, unpretentious entry point into a world of glitter-coated gyrations that doesn’t particularly care whether or not it turns you on. You’re either going to accept Verhoeven’s gaudy jaunt into a despotic sex industry or not. By the time dancers are being raped because they believe they’ve finally “made it”, the exit signs are shut off and the theater doors are locked. There’s no turning back; the “sexy” dream has become a nightmare.

This writer has already gone on record as absolutely loving Starship Troopers. Verhoeven’s loose Robert A. Heinlein adaptation was critically skewered upon initial release when it should’ve been revered. Where Basic Instinct is the filmmaker’s perversion crest, the battle between the bugs of Klendathu and the flawlessly complexioned kids of Buenos Aires is the zenith of his fascism fascination. Painted in the same cartoonish strokes as RoboCop (and touting another script by RC writer Ed Neumeier), the violence is upped to levels that are ridiculous by even the Dutch madman’s standards. Foot soldiers are maimed, mutilated and bled out by oversized yellow aliens that swarm into marauding hordes once their planet is invaded. The whole exercise feels like Verhoeven filtering the propaganda films his young mind witnessed through lustrously lit pulp. As opposed to RoboCop, which was painted in post-apocalyptic grime, cinematographer Jost Vacano captures Starship Troopers as a day-glo gore extravaganza. The movie’s more in line with Total Recall, exceeding even that fantastical trip to Mars’ expansive (not to mention expensive) visual schematic.

As Verhoeven doubles down on sci-fi action dystopia by tossing in a healthy dose of Leni Riefenstahl, another German filmic influence is simultaneously placed front and center. It’s hard not to be reminded of Douglas Sirk’s tongue-in-cheek Rock Hudson melodramas when these sassy teens join the army, killing in order to become citizens. The war against Klendathu often only serves as a backdrop for the love affairs and spiteful jealousies that carry the crew through boot camp, space pilot training and into the literal jaws of war. Casting white soap opera actors in the roles of Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien), Dizzy Flores (Dina Meyer) and Lt. Carmen Ibanez (Denise Richards) should’ve telegraphed just what plane of outlandish parody Verhoeven was operating on, but many still weren’t sure how they were supposed to take Neil Patrick Harris as a psychic Nazi seriously (answer: they weren’t). In short, Starship Troopers is lampooning every ludicrous recruiting video that any army has ever offered up, as the enlisted are such selfish, brainwashed assholes that you can’t help but hope the bugs kill ‘em all. It’s yet another masterwork of tonal tightrope-walking, delivered by an exacting entertainer with one of the meanest mischievous streaks to ever inhabit a filmmaker’s belly.

Even when Verhoeven isn’t necessarily operating in “top form”, his big studio output undeniably carries the lecherous fingerprint of a singular smut peddler. Hollow Man (’00) takes the invisible Claude Rains horror icon and updates him with an unhealthy dose of rapist aplomb. The last sci-fi spectacle the Dutch director constructed before disappearing for over half a decade is just as sexually depraved as his controversial '90s diversions, once again making the subtext text and asking what human beings would do if granted unthinkable power and the ability to exact their darkest fantasies undetected. It’s a movie where Dr. Jack Griffin’s stand-in (Kevin Bacon, hamming it up to the heavens) makes his major breakthrough after peeping on his busty next-door neighbor. Upon gaining his cloak of hiddenness, the first thing the mad scientist does is molest sleeping women before attempting to score with his ex (Elisabeth Shue). With great, unchecked power comes an incessant sex drive, and Verhoeven once again can’t help but explore the lustful souls of prideful men.

Really, the thematic core of Hollow Man (not to mention the whole of Verhoeven’s Hollywood output) is summed up via a crude joke Bacon’s ruthless researcher tells his team just before receiving the invisibility super serum. Its punch line revolves around Superman accidentally violating another hero’s anus while indulging an irrepressible moment of desire for a naked, writhing Wonder Woman. All Paul Verhoeven did upon moving to the US was pull adult pranks on the dime of major studios. Only his wild and unruly entertainments dragged genre filmmaking out of the proverbial ghetto and added both brains and cock to the proceedings. With Hollow Man, the perversion takes center stage in a way it never had before – a famous Universal Monster transformed into a sexual predator simply because he believes he cannot be caught. Verhoeven’s confronting the human side of horrors we recognize and then placing us in their shoes, letting every man in the audience wonder if they too would creep into a pretty girl’s room at night if they could get away with it (all while their date side-eyes them and ponders the same notion). In anyone else hands, Verhoeven’s American sci-f/action filmography would’ve been nothing more than empty spectacle. Instead, they’re subversive staples; products of a worldview shaped by bombs, bloodshed and a recognition that dark human desires coarse through the hearts of every person seated in the auditorium.