Isabelle Huppert in Elle

The first thing that happens in Elle is something that’s heard but not seen — the sounds of heavy breathing and bodies in motion, rubbing against each other. It’s almost certainly the sound of a sex scene, but there’s an aggression to it that suggests either exceptionally good sex or really, really bad sex — an act of violence. The smash of breaking glass is inconclusive, and the quick gasps and grunts don’t clarify a thing; divorced from visual context, they are uncommunicative, inconclusive fragments of expression. It’s an unnerving way to stage what is eventually revealed as a horrifying scene — a woman is brutally raped by a masked intruder — and of course Paul Verhoeven knows it.  The director’s first major film in 10 years is as sensational a crime drama as you’d expect from the director of Basic Instinct and Showgirls, a cutting psychological study anchored by ugly, explicit rape scenes. Its restrained look and feel are a far cry from the gleeful chaos favored by the Verhoeven of the 1970s, the poster boy for Dutch auteurism on the international scene. That filmmaker all but vanished during the director’s stay in Hollywood, only to resurface with the pulpy and absorbing Nazi resistance drama Black Book. But as lurid as Elle is, Verhoeven’s style is resolutely low-key. I suspect he’s deliberately channeling the austere Euro-drama of Michael Haneke, couching his irrepressible mischievousness in the international language of the arthouse. Continue reading

Black Book


Paul Verhoeven has received some of the stupider film reviews in recent history. I’m still floored by the number of people who see Robocop as an endorsement of, rather than satire on, the idea of unfettered and uncompromising law enforcement. Robocop may be the ultimate bad L.A. Cop, but the storyline, which had Peter Weller playing an armored cyborg struggling to regain his humanity, was a far cry from Dirty Harry wish-fulfillment. (I’m assuming Verhoeven needn’t be held accountable here for any number of unthinking meatheads who might have taken away from the film some kind of inspirational message about the validity of Rodney King tactics among police officers, but some viewers would doubtless argue that point.)

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Hollow Man (2000)

Hollow Man image

Just a few minutes into Hollow Man, my jaw hit the floor. Paul Verhoeven, who advanced the technique of computer animation by requiring scores upon scores of alien bugs to do interplanetary battle with a human army in Starship Troopers, now turns the same fearsome energy loose on the interior of the human body. He’s directed an invisible-man story that’s decided we should see the man’s physical form disappear from view one layer at a time, taking us on a visual tour of guts, organs, and sinew. I’m not a fan of CGI, but the intricacy of these visions are really something — gross enough to make me wince a little, but beautiful enough that I hardly want to blink. At that point, I swear, I was hoping I’d walk out of the theater convinced that Hollow Man would rate as one of my favorite movies of the year.

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Nancy Allen and Peter Weller in <em>Robocop</em>

On the commentary track that accompanies the Criterion Collection’s new DVD version of RoboCop, director Paul Verhoeven kicks things off by admitting that, on a first read of the film’s script, he declined the project, mistaking it for just another “B-level science fiction movie” from the Hollywood crap factories. Verhoeven’s comments are closely followed by those of producer Jon Davison, who imagines Verhoeven simply reading the first 20 pages of the script by Ed Neumeier and Michael Miner and then throwing the damn thing across the room. (From RoboCop, Verhoeven advanced to the far more swollen melodrama of Basic Instinct and Showgirls — his active philosophy where Hollywood crap is concerned seems to be “if you can’t beat them, join them.”)

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Starship Troopers

<em>Starship Troopers</em>

I’m making it official — I’ve given up on Paul Verhoeven. (2010 update: I didn’t actually give up on Paul Verhoeven. But I was really frustrated by Starship Troopers at the time. Looking back, the film just seems like a wonderful joke. I should probably revisit.)

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Joe “Woman Trouble” Eszterhas reteams with ace stylist Paul Verhoeven, who should know better, to create this bumbling epic of a skin flick. The bulk of the movie is pretty dopey, albeit kind of entertaining. But the World According to Eszterhas, as revealed in an unbearably hostile, stridently righteous final reel, is so smelly and distasteful that Showgirls is, finally, truly and thoroughly repellent.

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