“As a director, my goal is to be completely open. Just look at how I portray sex in my films. They’re considered shocking and obscene because I like to carefully examine human sexuality. It has to be realistic” – Paul Verhoeven[1]

Isabelle Huppert’s inclusion in this year’s “Best Actress” category at the Academy Awards is not only a triumph for the French icon, but also for a director whose name has become synonymous with poor taste: Paul Verhoeven. The Danish auteur’s body of work may be most familiar to those who consumed his ultra-violent, sexually aggressive output in the 1990s, but for the casual viewer his newest offering, Elle, bears little resemblance to his more infamous features. The film has been dubbed a “rape comedy” by many less discerning news outlets, but this moniker belies the maturity and restraint Verhoeven exercises in bringing this heterodox character study to life. Stylistically, Elle may be worlds away from the sensory overload of Showgirls or the muscular and bloody satire of Robocop, but the boundary-pushing content is classic Verhoeven, and the film sits proudly among his best works. He has always been lauded for his action sequences and derided for his scenes of “romance,” but Elle disproves the notion that the director’s attitude towards desire is a juvenile one. When viewed as a cohesive whole, his filmography emerges as a bold body of work in which transgressive sexuality is examined, celebrated, and manipulated to achieve his cinematic ends.

Hotshots and Whores

It was Turkish Delight (1973) that first brought Verhoeven critical acclaim and introduced his brand of provocative sexual imagery to the public. Starring Rutger Hauer (in the first of their many collaborations) and Monique van de Ven, the film is an earthy art-porno gem of the early 1970s Dutch counter-culture movement. It would rocket its two leads to stardom and is still considered the most successful film ever made in the Netherlands.

When we first meet the impetuous Eric in Turkish Delight, he’s in a dream world enacting violent fantasies against his estranged bride, Olga, and her newest paramour. It seems Olga has up and flown the coop, so Eric spends his days picking up random women and having furious sex with them. Eric is alternately beguiling and cruel, constantly insulting his conquests by comparing them to his unfaithful wife. The bulk of the film recounts his relationship with Olga from its first fretful moments to its death-haunted end in an episodic fashion reminiscent of the French New Wave.

 

 

From the start, Verhoeven treats his audience to full frontal nudity of both sexes and a casual, often comical attitude towards sexual conquest that still packs a punch today. In Turkish Delight’s opening minutes, Eric has sex with no less than six women in scenes of increasing anarchic abandon: He throws himself into a moving convertible to seduce its driver despite her protestations. One woman requests a post-coital souvenir, so he traces the outline of his sizable member and gifts it to her. Another has an overgrown nether region, which Eric takes a pair of scissors to before placing the clippings beneath his nose—mugging like a pervy Groucho Marx. When Eric meets Olga, their first tryst in her car is accompanied by a well-timed spray of washer fluid, followed by a mortifying scene in which the duo must ask a local farmer for a pair of pliers to free Eric’s penis which has been painfully trapped in his zipper.  It is through these various ludicrous acts that Verhoeven uses comedy to diffuse any discomfort his audience may have with the material and normalize sex as a non-threatening, everyday act. The scenes themselves are quite provocative, but the almost Chaplin-esque quality of them helps to win the viewer over before Verhoeven deep dives into the story at hand.

Eric and Olga are a poor fit from the start due to their cantankerous temperaments. The viewer knows they won’t last, but their overwhelming, all-consuming love for each other and contempt for societal mores binds them together and gives the film its pleasure and bite. Aside from their first deeply silly meeting, the sex scenes Verhoeven stages between the two are joyous and erotic with a true-to-life feel that would all but evaporate later in his career. There’s even a scene in which Eric pours champagne over Olga’s body—sucking it voraciously and lovingly from her navel—that would be re-created in Showgirls: orgiastic glee replaced with seedy excess.

Turkish Delight still plays well today because of its moral neutrality. There’s a curious preoccupation with bodily fluids and human waste in the film. From blood, urine and fecal matter, to amniotic fluid, vomit and cervical mucus, Verhoeven lets all flow in the two-hour running time as if to say, “There is nothing a human being can produce or do that repulses me.” From Olga’s infidelity to a scene of spousal rape perpetrated by Eric, Verhoeven’s removed observance makes for an emotionally and socially realistic film quite unlike the director the world would come to know. It celebrates romantic love as a sort of divine madness—a product of our intellectually evolved, yet animalistic nature.

Verhoeven’s preoccupation with sex as social commentary crystallized in his next feature, Katie Tippel (1975). Again pairing with Monique van de Ven as the titular character, this period piece was a different animal entirely from its predecessor: casting 19th century Amsterdam as a battleground where copulation is a bargaining chip either taken by force or given for gain. This misanthropic view of the world would become synonymous with Verhoeven’s work up to the present day, but it’s important to remember that the director also has a deep-rooted humanism constantly flowing through even his bleakest films. This benevolent respect for his fellow man was largely influenced by the scenes of destruction and violence he witnessed growing up near a German military base during World War Two. The conflict largely influenced his worldview and ostensible mission statement for much of his later work: “The sooner we admit our capacity for evil, the less apt we are to destroy each other.”[2]

Katie Tippel can often come off as exploitative, but Verhoeven’s characterization of Katie as a pillar of strength laid low by a society that values wealth above human life molds her into a tragic feminist heroine. An inferior film when compared with the taboo-obliterating Turkish Delight, Katie Tippel is important because it shows Verhoeven exploring the opposite corner of his sexual obsessions—moving from transcendent romanticism to fucking for power and profit. It’s this dichotomy between self-sacrifice and manipulation in matters of the flesh that he would return to again and again throughout his career.

 

 

Verhoeven’s next three projects would tackle masculinity and homosexuality in increasingly effective ways. The well-received Soldier of Orange (1977) is the least interesting of the three, chronicling the roles of male students during the German occupation of the Netherlands. The one moment that flirts with controversy is a tango between Rutger Hauer and Derek De Lint that hints at queer desire, but ultimately the film is an inoffensive, competently made war story. The director’s next feature Spetters (1980), however, was greeted with an outcry that would sour Verhoeven’s reputation in Europe. An aimless story about three amateur motocross racers, Spetters (roughly translated as “Hunks” or “Hotshots”) is a strange takedown of the macho-posturing Dutch youth culture. The film features the most full frontal male nudity in the director’s entire oeuvre, including unsimulated man-on-man fellatio. Heavily influenced by American biker movies, melodrama, and music, the young men in Spetters live in a world of performative masculinity of a profoundly toxic nature. Rien (Hans Von Tongeren), Hans (Maarten Spanjer), and Eef (Toon Agterberg) spend their days Motocross racing and womanising, envisioning a day when they can escape their dreary working class existence on the outskirts of Rotterdam. Performance is a large part of their lives, not only on the Motocross track but in their interactions with each other and their romantic conquests.

As previously stated, American culture looms large over the movie. The music of Blondie and Iggy Pop is prominently featured and visual representations of Elvis and John Travolta are very prevalent as images of flamboyantly masculine playacting. In one scene, after a night spent aping moves straight out of Saturday Night Fever at their local discotheque, Rien and Hans retire to an abandoned building to lay their girlfriends in separate rooms divided by a thin wall. Rien can’t hold an erection and Hans’ lady has her period. Rather than just calling it a night, both duos engage in vigorous moaning “like in the movies” for the other couple’s hearing pleasure. Though unable to “perform” in the traditional sense, both men put on a show to maintain the aura of sexual efficacy that is the cornerstone of their social relations with each other.

But Verhoeven doesn’t allow these young men to maintain this fantasy for long. He strikes each youth with flaws and problems of increasing humiliation and severity. When the simple and sweet Hans finally gets to bed the girl of his dreams, his humiliating two pump performance is met with relative indifference. Rien suffers a motorcycle accident after receiving an ill-fated face full of oranges and is rendered impotent—a trial he can’t endure which leads to his ultimate suicide. Both of these pale in comparison, however to Eef’s ultimate destination in Verhoeven’s bizarre machismo crushing picture.

To say that Verhoeven has a problematic relationship with rape is an understatement. He typically treats it either too flippantly or leans on it too hard for dramatic effect. However, he rarely takes it to a level one would consider outright offensive, though Spetters is a notable exception. Eef has a proclivity for mugging and abusing homosexual males. His behavior eventually lands him in deep trouble when a troupe of burly, leather-bound men chases him down and brutally proceeds to gangbang him in an abandoned train tunnel. In either a brazenly stupid or impudently calculated turn, Eef comes to the conclusion that he himself is a homosexual and falls in love with one of the rapists virtually moments after the assault. Naturally, this preposterous turn didn’t sit well with critics, audiences, or the gay community at the time of the film’s release, and time hasn’t been kind to it.

 

 

Poor taste and medieval attitudes aside, however, there is some sort of bizarre logic to this characterization. In Verhoeven’s world of cracked masculinity and testosterone-fueled anarchy, violence seems to seep into every aspect of daily life, including sex. Eef’s almost fetishistic desire to humiliate and rob gay men comes from a compulsive need within himself to be humiliated, and by being dominated in such brutal fashion, he finds a freedom and placation from the beast of performative masculinity that has been torturing him. To this day, sexual violence clings to Verhoeven’s name like a foul odor, but it was in Spetters that he first began to explore the knife’s edge between pleasure and pain. Eef’s sexual awakening is not a successful, elegant, or politically correct synthesis of the two, but it’s quite Verhovian in the grossest sense.

Verhoeven’s three film obsession with homoerotic urges lurking within the average male finally bore fruit in The Fourth Man (1983). Based on a novel by Gerard Reve, the film is a phantasmagoric orgy of violent and sensuous imagery the likes of which Verhoeven had never produced before. Teaming with Spetters’ Renée Soutendijk and the devilishly handsome Jeroen Krabbé, the director crafted a Hitchcock pastiche by way of Louis Buñuel that pushed his technical prowess further than it had ever gone.

 

 

Gerard Reve (in a self-reflexive bit of character naming that speaks to the film’s intentions as a whole) is a bisexual, death-obsessed author with a tenuous grip on reality. He soon meets Christine, an icy blonde beauty with three dead husbands. The two become lovers and Gerard learns the unsavory truth about Christine’s past. As time passes, he becomes convinced that Christine’s widow status is anything but accidental, but his obsession with her hunky fuck buddy Herman (Thom Hoffman) keeps him from acting rationally and escaping her clutches.

Perhaps the most subversive element of The Fourth Man is its least conspicuous: Gerard’s bisexual tendencies. It’s rare for modern cinema (let alone Danish cinema thirty years ago) to feature a bisexual character without fuss or mockery. Gerard’s tastes are never discussed, only witnessed by the audience. He readily goes from ogling a well-toned hunk at the train station to vigorously humping Christine mere hours later. Various moments, such as when he tells Christine that she resembles a “slim, delicate” boy (covering her breasts to complete the effect) highlight the fine line that exists between male and female, and more broadly in the context of the film, fantasy, and reality.

Unlike Eef in Spetters, Gerard’s sexual anxiety is extremely potent and well executed. His devout religiosity is at odds with his erotic appetites and often infects his dirty fantasies. While praying in a church he has a vision of the adonis-like Herman strung up where Jesus should be . Gerard kisses his bleeding feet and reaches upward to remove his tiny red speedo before a nun spoils his reverie and reality rushes back. Aside from his sexual fantasies, Gerard has recurring dreams about Christine cutting his penis off with a pair of large scissors. Before the end, as truth becomes indistinguishable from fiction, he becomes convinced that Christine is a witch: a temptress who has claimed the lives of three men, and Herman is to be the fourth. Is this reality? Or is Christine just the canvas that Gerard projects his religious shame onto? Is he truly bisexual, or is his bedding of women a sort of religious observance—a duty he must uphold to please the God he loves and atone for his aberrant desires? The ambiguity, sumptuous visual style and mature, multi-faceted characterisation of a sexually complex male make The Fourth Man one of Paul Verhoeven’s most accomplished films and a perfect cap to the first period of his career .

Base Instincts

After The Fourth Man, Verhoeven set his sights on America. In a recent interview he expressed his disillusionment with the Dutch film industry, saying, “I really fled Holland in 1985 because the committees that give you money didn’t want to give it to me any more because they thought I made ‘entertainment movies’, low level, disgusting, perverted and portraying Dutch society in the wrong way.”[3] Verhoeven would secure his first American-backed release with the medieval epic, Flesh and Blood. His final collaboration with Rutger Hauer before the two had a falling out, the film is a strange footnote in Verhoeven’s filmography: a well-made, if unsatisfying bit of escapist entertainment featuring the worst excesses of 80s genre filmmaking. Verhoeven covers little new sexual ground in the film, opting instead to retread old themes and amp up the violence to compete in his new cinematic market.

This new American market would lead to the most financially successful years of Verhoeven’s career and would take his filmmaking to new heights of satire and effrontery. Robocop—a boldly stylish and satirical meditation on capitalistic corruption and greed—proved to be the perfect vehicle for Verhoeven to achieve crossover success. Working from a whip-smart script by Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner, and packed with graphic violence that toed the line between horror and comedy, Robocop was a bold trumpet blast announcing the arrival of a provocative auteur working in a brand new milieu. The film was extremely well received, and Verhoeven’s success would be continued with the Schwarzenegger vehicle Total Recall. Both are considered among the finest sci-fi adventures ever made and rightly so, though sex is largely sidelined within their narratives—phalluses replaced by guns and jets of blood stand in for ejaculate. Verhoeven seemed to sense America’s sex-phobia from the moment he touched down and chose to capitalise on its more bloodthirsty tendencies instead.

It would be his fateful collaboration with Flashdance screenwriter Joel Eszsterhas that would return him firmly to the realm of sexual button-pushing and solidify his transatlantic reputation as a peddler of cinematic smut. Eszsterhas’ script, Basic Instinct, sold for a record-smashing three million dollars. The film would prove to be the most successful of both the director’s and writer’s careers, becoming the ninth highest-grossing film of 1992.

Starring Sharon Stone as bisexual murderess Catherine Tramell and Michael Douglas as Nick Curran, the troubled investigator who falls for her, Basic Instinct was far and away the seediest film Verhoeven had produced up until that point. A thriller with heavy doses of Hitchcockian intrigue and Giallo-esque bursts of sexualised ultra-violence, the film finds Verhoeven on firmly misanthropic ground. Whereas Robocop and Total Recall were satirical jabs at a consumer-driven, violence-loving America with well-intentioned every men at the center, Basic Instinct is a film stripped of cleverness or subterfuge lacking a true moral center. To be sure, it’s a sleek, well-acted, visually accomplished thrill ride, making great use of its San Francisco location photography courtesy of Jan De Bont, a frequent Verhoeven collaborator. It is, however, thematically swampy and morally troubled, featuring Douglas as an investigator who is every fibre as depraved and unsalvageable as the woman he’s tasked with investigating.

After two films that benched sex in favor of grotesque bloodletting, Basic Instinct’s combative approach to human sexuality can be read as a knee-jerk reaction to life in an America still haunted by the AIDS epidemic—simultaneously harried and fascinated by death. From its opening minutes when a nubile blonde writhes atop an aging rock star before plunging an ice pick into his face, it’s impossible to distinguish moans of pleasure from those of agony. Viewers may find themselves rooting for Michael Douglas as they did in Fatal Attraction a few years prior until he engages in disturbing, assault-tinged sex with Jeanne Tripplehorn that dulls the star’s heroic glow. When Nick and Catherine finally consummate their unholy union, the sex is meticulously choreographed by Verhoeven with a ludicrous balletic frigidity, underscored by music bordering on maniacal. Basic Instinct presents sex devoid of all pleasure or emotional connection—the embattled smacking of flesh against flesh a poor substitute for the preferred entertainments of a society steeped in cinematic gore.

 

 

The famous scene in which Sharon Stone shamelessly reveals her vulva during a police interrogation seems almost tame today, but it was enough to send critics and filmgoers alike into a frenzy in 1992. Bizarrely, in a film stuffed with sex, the mere flash of the leading lady’s vaginal opening ignited the public, inviting condemnation from protestors (who also took umbrage with the character’s bisexuality) and ensuring that the film received a wide viewership. Just why did this moment drag the film out of the muck into the pantheon of Hollywood blockbusters? In a moment of serendipitous invention, Verhoeven inserted this unscripted moment and created a half second of real transgression: a woman asserting her sexual dominance unobscured by a haze of violence. It’s the single moment in the film that isn’t relentlessly manicured to engage the rudimentary pleasure-receptors of adolescent boys and dirty old men: an unadorned, exquisite moment of feminine aggression generating shock and existential terror in the moralistic heart of an America that embraces sexuality only when it comes with the promise of danger. Verhoeven himself has said that they got away with the sex because it was a thriller, “because there was another element there—the element of threat.”[4]

It is this moment that signposts Verhoeven’s continued commitment to subversive sexuality despite his new glossy, seemingly vacuous genre style. Though Basic Instinct is billed as a classic tale of an evil temptress juxtaposed against a “good” woman with a man torn between them, all three are morally reprehensible and engage in sexual behavior poisoned by an America that finds killing more palatable lovemaking. The ambiguous ending pleases both auteur and audience: as Stone and Douglas fuck and discuss their future, the camera pans below the bed to reveal an ice-pick primed for a final, surprise kill. Verhoeven and Eszterhas seem to let Catherine off the hook, but savage America can imagine a comeuppance for the murderous  bitch more grotesque and satisfying than could be depicted in images.

 

A Broken Fall

The ambiguous ending of Basic Instinct and its embrace of bonehead satiating sexuality made it a massive hit, but there would be no such pandering with Verhoeven’s next project. Again pairing with Eszterhas, Showgirls (1996) is frequently cited as one of the towering failures of the 1990s, though its video revenue in the years since disappearing from theaters tells a different story. Starring Elizabeth Berkley as Nomi Malone, a drifter with dreams of becoming a dancer, Verhoeven sought to take the most American of genres, the movie musical, and drag it down into the grime and sleaze of the Vegas underworld. Showgirls plays like a lobotomized, cocaine-fueled All About Eve: Gina Gershon chewing the scenery harder than Bette Davis and Berkley playing the Eve Harrington character with a ferocious, drag-queenish intensity. With cinematography by Robocop and Total Recall’s Jost Vacant, the film looks exquisite and boasts a visual exuberance unlike anything else in Verhoeven’s canon. The craftsmanship on display is worth noting because most of the population considers Showgirls poorly made camp, but it’s only camp in the Susan Sontag definition of the word: “Camp is art that proposes itself seriously, but cannot be taken altogether seriously because it is ‘ too much.’”

“Too much” is an apt summation of Showgirls if there ever was one. Incited by the scandal caused by Sharon Stone’s crotch in Basic Instinct, the film is a response piece that seems to scream, “you thought that was too much, you ain’t seen nothing yet!” Showgirls is a bastardisation of the Hollywood musical blueprint—an all-out assault on the sexual mores of the American public. The audiences who were so shocked and enamored with that split second muff shot in Basic Instinct were treated to a full, numbingly gratuitous twenty minutes of full frontal from Miss Berkley.

Basic Instinct presented sexuality that always verged on violence, in Showgirls sex is violence. Verhoeven stages every sex scene as a conflict: Kyle McLachlan’s thrusts eliciting in Berkley the physical response of a woman in death throes. As for the characters, they don’t even seem to know right from wrong, existing on a plane in which petty moralistic concerns hardly factor into their search for their next bump of coke or good fuck. Nomi Malone is a character seemingly beamed in from Mars —insulting her friends, beating up men in bars, and pushing other dancers down the stairs with a cartoonish sociopathic remorselessness. Unlike Catherine Tramell, Nomi never comes within sniffing distance of anything resembling punishment and is amply rewarded for the most rotten behavior. Most insultingly to good taste, the only objectively “good” character in the film is brutally raped in a scene of exploitative monstrousness that has caused many to write the film off entirely. But this, along with every other element is just part of the cruel joke that Verhoeven is playing on the viewer : glutting the American hunger for excessive eroticism and brutality to the point of insult.

 

 

Showgirls is brilliant in its unabashed tastelessness. It openly mocked the audience that had lapped up the violence of Robocop with sexuality of an equally aggressive nature. Unsurprisingly, it was slapped with an NC-17 rating in the U.S. and widely panned upon release. Audiences searching for mere titillation didn’t get the joke. After the failure of Showgirls, Verhoeven did his best to return to his former glory with the space bug invasion meets fascist satire, Starship Troopers (1997). It was another big box office failure for Verhoeven (although it has had a vibrant life on cable television) and after one more feeble attempt at relevance (the abysmal Hollow Man in 2001), the director left Hollywood.

Looking back, one gets the sense that Verhoeven lost his way as an artist during Basic Instinct. The humanism and moral neutrality inherent in his earlier works were buried under an avalanche of smug satire and antagonism. These elements had always been present in Verhoeven’s work, but they hadn’t overtaken his films in this way until he worked with Eszterhas. After a decade spent pulling pranks on the movie-going public on the dime of major studios, he was no longer creating characters, just simulacra stuffed with the nastiest bits of the American id. It would take a twenty-year hiatus and a return to his native country for Verhoeven to reconnect with the themes that made his earlier works so revelatory and channel the lessons he learned in the U.S. into something more cerebral.

Effrontery Evolved

In 2006, he received a respectable amount of acclaim for the WWII thriller, Black Book. His first project made in the Netherlands since The Fourth Man, it did extremely well in his homeland, receiving the most accolades of any film that year and serving as the Dutch submission for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. It wasn’t nominated, but it was quite well received internationally. In an interview during shooting, Verhoeven stated: “In this movie, everything has a shade of grey. There are no people who are completely good and no people who are completely bad. It’s like life. It’s not very Hollywoodian.”[6] The king of moral neutrality had returned, but he wouldn’t find his sexual daring again for almost another decade, with 2016’s Elle.

Despite Verhoeven’s best attempts to get Elle made in the U.S., he couldn’t find an actress willing to tackle the controversial leading role. When Isabelle Huppert expressed interest, he dropped everything, set about brushing up on his French, and had the production moved overseas. Much like Verhoeven, Huppert is no stranger to difficult and divisive material. Her widely lauded turn as Erika in Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher (2001) is thematically (if not quite spiritually) similar to the work she does in Elle. Securing an actress of her calibre for the project elevated the material and allowed Verhoeven to create the finest film in his oeuvre.

Huppert plays Michèle, a former English professor and current head of a successful video game company. One afternoon she is raped by a masked assailant in her kitchen. She takes the event in surprising stride, neglects to inform the police, and only tells her friends about it conversationally over dinner a few days later. This rape, it seems, is just the latest woeful event in Michèle’s life of desolation. Her son is an ineffectual buffoon tangled up in a relationship with a domineering and unfaithful woman. She resents her narcissistic mother for shamelessly purchasing the company of countless male escorts. Worst of all, Michéle’s father is a convicted serial killer newly up for parole for the murders of twenty-seven people in her youth. In a bid for human connection, Michéle obsessively seeks to seduce her handsome neighbor Patrick (played by Laurent Lafitte) away from his ultra-religious wife, but soon realises that he himself is the masked man who raped her at the start of the film. The two enter into a twisted sexual relationship through which Michéle regains control of her life.

 

Elle is signature Verhoeven from top to bottom, with a dispassionate approach to the complicated sexual proclivities of its lead character and a provocative desire to finger the emotional wounds she has endured. A black screen opens the film scored by Huppert’s moans of apparent ecstasy before it’s revealed that she’s being ravaged by an intruder. This is, of course, an unsubtle cue that Elle will be, like so much of Verhoeven’s output, a film about  grey areas and upended expectations. Michèle’s demeanor after the attack further chips away at the fragile preconceptions of the viewer, showing her to be a seemingly emotionally detached and damaged individual, though her tenacious brand of gallows humor pokes holes in that characterisation as well. The uneasy truth is that Michèle is a woman in full control of her reality with a pathological refusal to behave as expected.

She’s openly contemptuous of her mother and freely admits to feeling no familial love for her son. She massages her foot against her neighbor’s crotch during Christmas dinner while his wife looks on, and she has no qualms about sleeping with her best friend/business partner’s husband before Eskimo kissing her and reminiscing about the botched lesbian encounter the two of them had many years prior. Obviously, most striking is her relative ambivalence toward the brutal assault she suffers in the film’s opening minutes, and the almost leisurely pace she takes in arming herself with pepper spray and a small ax after the fact.

Michèle is a woman shaped by the heinous acts of her father and having to bear witness to them. She’s not an outright sociopath, nor is she an empathetic beacon of hope and resilience after trauma. She does, however, shed light on the pervasive nature of the sleazy Hollywood rape-revenge formula and seems to bend that very trope to her will, rewriting the narrative of the rape victim entirely. There’s a self-awareness here on Verhoeven’s part—an acknowledgment that his handling of the painful topic of rape hasn’t always been the most tactful. Michèle’s status as a former student of literature moonlighting as a peddler of nasty computer-generated fantasies is the perfect metaphor for Verhoeven’s career in the United States, and her dark journey from infamy to full personhood finds a spiritual mirror in the director’s trajectory as a filmmaker. That isn’t to say Elle’s handling of its dark subject matter isn’t controversial, it’s just that Verhoeven has pulled off what seems impossible for so many geniuses of a certain age: he’s learned from his mistakes and has continued to evolve as an artist and craftsman.

 

 

Michèle’s refusal to be victimised and her engagement in the rape scenario over and over again with her neighbor mirrors Verhoeven’s compulsive need to probe human nature through sexual exploration and trauma. She is in total control as she chooses to give Patrick what he desires and engage in the victim fantasy with him. She exerts this power for her own ends—exorcising her demons by touching darkness—until she no longer requires him. Patrick receives his comeuppance by the end of the film and a degree of normality is restored, but only after Michéle has made him an unwilling participant in her emotional evolution: forcibly taking something from him as he forcibly took sexual gratification from her. The ultimate triumph of Elle is that it functions on all levels at once: As a satire and subversion of the rape-revenge film; as a potent portrayal of feminine strength and ingenuity; as a self-commentary on the career of its director. The darkly comedic tone and pitch-perfect performance of its leading lady are just the sour cherries on top of this exquisite, challenging, career-defining cake.

Huppert’s recognition by The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences this year is a triumph for a frequently misunderstood director with a consistently twisted point of view. From his earliest days in the Netherlands, Paul Verhoeven confronted audiences with an in-your-face sexuality stripped of pat moralistic or ideological concerns boasting a palpably realistic feel. As his career progressed, he began to paint sexual expression as satire and metaphor before descending into smug provocation with his U.S. output. Even then, his portrayal of human desire was never meant as mere titillation, and though Hollywood ultimately forsook him, he has risen from the detritus of a once-prolific career to produce a film that casts the entirety of his previous output in a new light.

Elle is of a piece with Turkish Delight, Spetters, and Basic Instinct: presenting dangerous sexuality as a physical expression of a character defined by her age, milieu and psychological struggles. Verhoeven has courted controversy joyfully and voraciously for his entire life, because he uses sex to make us question what it means to be alive. Through beautiful, risible, sometimes politically incorrect or devastating scenes of coitus, he exposes the shadowy recesses of our collective minds. For Paul Verhoeven, sex is the great equaliser—both the thing that brought all of us screaming, sticky life, and the screaming, sticky thing for which we all yearn. This yearning is never simple, however, as Verhoeven reminds us time and again, because sex itself isn’t simple: in it is contained everything—good and bad, sacred and profane—that makes us human. When speaking of his greatest failure, Showgirls, now turned one of his greatest successes in this era of ironic re-evaluation, Verhoeven said: “There is a fear about sex in motion pictures, as if sex would undermine morality.”[7] Paul Verhoeven built a career doing just that: capsising notions of propriety, turning on some, shocking many, and left behind a transgressive body of work that deserves to be celebrated for its dauntlessness and artistry.

[1] Rob van Scheers, Paul Verhoeven (London: Faber & Faber, 1997), 159-161.

[2]Caitlin Johnson, “Verhoeven Re-Examines Dutch Resistance”, CBS News 15th April 2007. http://www.cbsnews.com/news/verhoeven-re-examines-dutch-resistance/

[3]Geoffrey Macnab, “Paul Verhoeven Talks ‘Elle’ and Why He Fled to Hollywood”, Screendaily 14th November 2016. http://www.screendaily.com/features/paul-verhoeven-talks-elle-and-why-he-fled-to-hollywood/5111242.article

[4] Jennifer Wood, “‘Showgirls’: Paul Verhoeven on the Greatest Stripper Movie Ever Made”, Rolling Stone 22nd September 2015. http://www.rollingstone.com/movies/news/showgirls-paul-verhoeven-on-the-greatest-stripper-movie-ever-made-20150922#ixzz42IA9HpBa

[5]Cleto, Fabio. Camp: Queer Aesthetics and the Performing Subject ; a Reader. Edinburgh: Edinburgh U, 2008. p. 59

[6] “Homeward Bound”, The Guardian 25th November. https://www.theguardian.com/film/2005/nov/25/2

[7] Showgirls DVD insert, quoted in http://www.ghosts.org/verhoeven/quotes.html