Going Dutch: Suss Out the Subversion in the Work of the Man Behind ‘Showgirls’


Until seeing his most recent movie, the constantly bewildering yet always engrossing rape-revenger Elle, I had largely been agnostic about the Dutch provocateur Paul Verhoeven. Or, more accurately, I never counted myself among the Verhoeven acolytes, one of those who could salute the director — particularly for his cyberpunk/sci-fi Hollywood spectacles, like RoboCop (1987), Total Recall (1990), and Starship Troopers (1997), made during his fifteen-year stretch, from 1985 to 2000, of working in the U.S. — as a “mass-market auteur, a real genius,” in the words of critic David Rimanelli in the summer 2000 issue of Artforum.

And I doubt I’ll ever share that unequivocal ardor for the filmmaker, whose work, upon Elle‘s November 11 release, is being celebrated in a complete FSLC retrospective. But Elle reveals a brilliant strategy on Verhoeven’s part: He cedes the authorial stamp of the film to its indomitable star, Isabelle Huppert, playing the video-game exécutrice who is violated in the movie’s opening seconds. Motored, as many Verhoeven films are, by multiple ambiguities, Elle would be an obscenity without the actress’s typically hyper-alert performance. My admiration for this obsidian-black comedy ignited my interest in watching, either for the first time or anew, a handful of Verhoeven films that are driven by one of his abiding themes, the nexus of sex and power — a topic torqued to the extreme in his latest.

Tremendously successful in the Netherlands, Turkish Delight (1973), Verhoeven’s second feature, marked the first of the director’s five collaborations with Rutger Hauer, here making his film debut as Eric Vonk, a priapic sculptor. “I fuck better than God,” he proclaims to one bedmate, a boast that he’s given ample screen time to prove. A slew of women are lured back to Eric’s grotty studio, one rocking her baby’s carriage in rhythm to the pounding she’s receiving from the blond, built artist on top of her. The perversity — a Verhoeven hallmark — multiplies once the central amour fou commences, after a hitchhiking Eric is picked up by Olga (Monique van de Ven), a thumb-sucker still living at home with her burgher parents. His dong gets stuck in his zipper after they frenziedly go at it in the front seat, one instance of many in Verhoeven’s oeuvre in which even the most hypermasculine characters aren’t immune from humiliations.

Turkish Delight also reveals a fascination with the body’s effluvia: Eric invites Olga to piss in his mouth; he cheerfully inspects one of her bowel movements (the turd-handling a precursor of sorts to the bucket of excrement dumped on the heroine’s head in Black Book, Verhoeven’s World War II thriller from 2006, made in his homeland); he spews a torrent of vomit after seeing his beloved kiss another man. Like those leaking, egesting bodies, Turkish Delight is wet, smeary, out of control, and savage — in other words, a lot like Showgirls (1995), which I’ll get to in a moment.

Gerard Reve (Jeroen Krabbé), the bisexual writer protagonist of The 4th Man (1983), the last film Verhoeven made in Holland before heading to Hollywood, may, on the surface, be a more refined character than bestial Eric, though his mental health is less stable. (That’s not to dismiss an important sartorial similarity: Both men, seen in the opening minutes of their respective film clothed only from the waist up, seem to favor Porky Pigging at home.) Already haunted by religious visions and death obsessions, Gerard suffers castration nightmares once he’s seduced by sleek beauty-salon owner Christine (Renée Soutendijk), who seems always to be wielding shiny shears. He stays with her, if only for the chance to reunite with Christine’s prole lover Herman (Thom Hoffman), whom Gerard had earlier cruised hard at the Amsterdam train station. “I thought, I’ve got to have him, even if it kills me,” the man of letters tells his butch crush, a line that works; Herman is on his knees a few minutes later. Gerard is spared death, in a way, while his psyche is forever destroyed by what he learns about Christine and the odd fate of her three husbands: “She fucks you and finishes you off!”

Combining Euro-suavity, pulp pleasure, and sharp weapons, The 4th Man is an obvious antecedent for Basic Instinct (1992), Verhoeven’s biggest succès de scandale in the U.S. Owing to its preponderance of homicidal high-femme dykes, this tawdry riff on Vertigo invoked the wrath of GLAAD and Queer Nation, which called for protests and boycotts — a dubious political strategy I followed at the time, only catching up with the film on VHS a few years later. Returning to Basic Instinct two decades afterward, I still cannot fully embrace the film’s strenuously (deliberately?) awful dialogue, written by Joe Eszterhas, who also scripted Showgirls. But Basic Instinct‘s sympathies are more complex than they might at first seem: However sinister Sharon Stone’s Pacific Heights–dwelling, ice-pick-killing authoress may be, she remains infinitely more appealing than Michael Douglas’s overweening detective.

I got it wrong, too, when I first watched Showgirls, which I caught on opening weekend in September ’95 with two homo pals, the three of us outnumbered by middle-aged men in raincoats. What once struck me as wan camp I now appreciate as vulgar brio, the film’s sordid Las Vegas milieu of strip clubs and All About Eve–like deceit and machinations a down-and-dirty dissection of this country’s supply-and-demand soul-sickness. “Come on, ladies! Sell! Sell! Sell your bodies,” an impresario exhorts those auditioning, including a gloriously volatile Elizabeth Berkley, for a Cirque du Soleil–meets–Siegfried & Roy grotesquerie. While revisiting Showgirls, I often thought of one of Huppert’s lines in Elle: “Shame isn’t a strong enough emotion to stop us doing anything at all,” words that could serve as a tagline for several of Verhoeven’s deep, dank dives into eros and thanatos.

‘Total Verhoeven’
Film Society of Lincoln Center
November 9–23