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Sunday, 20 August 2017

Directorial Feature Spotlight: Paul Verhoeven

'Misogynistic & Terrible Depictions of Female & Hero Characters Hinder My Enjoyment Of His Movies'

Paul Verhoeven is a Dutch filmmaker originally hailing from Amsterdam, who is best known for the 1987 action sci-fi based cyberpunk offering, Robocop amongst other notable American films that became worldwide successes.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Paul Verhoeven shocked Hollywood traditionalists and directed a string of R-rated Hollywood mega-hits that really pushed the boundaries of sex and violence in more ways than one and in deeply provocative ways that lured audiences to their seats, as well as enraged and upset censors and moralists with his ideas. His first English language film was Flesh & Blood made in Paul's native country and was released in 1985, starring Rutger Hauer and Jennifer Jason Leigh.

All the American actresses Verhoeven had turned to to play the lead role of Elle in the 2016 self-titled movie, turned him down and in the end, he settled for a French actress, Isabelle Huppert. Similarly, a number of high-profile actresses turned down the chance to play and had refused to play the role of Catherine in Basic Instinct including Kathleen Turner, Michelle Pfeiffer, Meg Ryan (who coincidentally went on to star in erotic thriller In The Cut), Julia Roberts, Kim Basinger and Demi Moore. With the role eventually snapped up by Sharon Stone, who had previously worked with Verhoeven on Total Recall.

He has a (deeply) disturbing interest/fetish towards rape from both the perspectives of the rapist and the victim: in Spetters, an early Dutch film, a young gay man is gang- raped by a group of bikers, in Flesh & Blood, Martin played by Rutger Hauer rapes Agnes (Jennifer Jason Lee), in Showgirls Nomi's best friend is brutally raped by a pop star, Basic Instinct's Michael Douglas's cop character attempts to rape his estranged wife and in Hollow Man, an invisible serial killer scientist in Sebastian enters a woman's house and rapes her as she lies on her bed. & in Elle, a French-language rape revenge thriller, the main character is raped by her attacker and goes on to stalk her attacker. The latter of which earned him several awards and is the most critically acclaimed movie of his career.

Verhoeven has made a career out of stirring and courting controversy by going beyond the boundaries and merging wit with excesses in sex and violence. His movies, particularly his sci-fi based outings, are typically violent, satirical and contain and conjure up highly provocative and sexual imagery, which each film having a heavily stylised aesthetic look and feel to them. Robocop, Basic Instinct, Total Recall, Starship Troopers, Showgirls are all satires that indulge in his morbid and warped take on socially immoral human behaviour. Verhoeven's portrayals and framing of the female characters, but for in Robocop and Total Recall, lean more towards being misogynistic. The guy loves women: he likes them strong but also in ways that their bodies attract the allure of their male aggressors and that they are used and get taken advantage of. Which is what worries and disturbs me about Verhoeven.

Sharon Stone once alleged the infamous leg crossing scene in Basic Instinct where her vagina was exposed during filming, was filmed without her knowledge. That once she saw the footage with a test audience that she became aware of this and Stone slapped Verhoeven in the face and left the screening. Verhoeven strongly denied this allegation. 

His fascination with sex and violence is given the hardcore treatment with nudity, gore, blood and guts aplenty, which is also glossy and somewhat well-crafted. I loved Robocop and think it is the best movie Paul Verhoeven has directed, followed by Total Recall, which was a brilliant follow-up. But after that, his follow-ups have been a mixed bag for me and not least because of the protagonist/good guy characters we or I am supposed to root for, are so dislikable, unsympathetic and lack redeemable qualities. Had many of his characters been as likable enough for me, then it would make me enjoy Verhoeven's movies even more. I don't watch movies just for the plot, story, casting, special effects, action scenes etc, but for the characters themselves. & having hero characters that come across as humane and likable is important in the viewing experience for me. It may not be a big deal for a lot of people, but it is to me.

But alas, minus points for the misogynistic female characters, for the male characters as being the aggressors and but for Robocop, Elle, Total Recall, his other movies that have dislikable protagonist characters that I can't root for, for various reasons.

I find his sci-fi movies more watchable; Basic Instinct was rather underwhelming for me, and but for the highly charged erotic sex scenes, it was absent of the tension needed to rile up the film. Showgirls is a guilty pleasure, Hollow Man was all right but Starship Troopers felt too much like a teen drama in the mode of Saved By The Bell with large blood-thirsty insects & not so interesting story. & again, all the hero-based characters in those movies lacked charm and I found them as equally detestable and not empathetic enough.

Visually, stylistically, aesthetically, Paul Verhoeven's movies look a treat and as much as his movies contain some sort of social message, this is often overlooked in some instances in favour of the nihilistic violence and sexual imagery they evoke. 

Therefore, as strong and heavy- laden as the sex and violence are by Paul Verhoeven, its lack of moralistic and honourable protagonist characters for me to root for, ruins what is otherwise an interesting showing by Verhoeven. He is a director that is not for everyone - which is fine, and though there are some things he does that I find intriguing, the rest is just for shock purposes. 

That, and that some of the rape scenes in his films are uncomfortable for me to sit through.

Notable Favourites: Robocop (1987) & Total Recall (1990)
Notable Non-Favourites: Starship Troopers (1997), Basic Instinct (1992), Flesh & Blood (1985)

Grade I Would Award Towards Paul Verhoeven:  C

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