Critical acclaim is building for Verhoeven’s black feminist comedy

Film | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

Opens Jan. 13

Paul Verhoeven, director of a number of sci-fi classics (Total Recall, Robocop, Starship Troopers) and smutty thrillers (Basic Instinct, The 4th Man, Showgirls), is experiencing the critical recognition that eluded him in the past. His latest, Elle, appears in most “Best of the Year” lists, and is expected to be a player at the Academy Awards.

For a man approaching his eighth decade, Verhoeven remains remarkably spry. Not only is he a dynamic presence (he speaks very fast and juggles several ideas in one answer), he has no intention to stop. In fact, the only reason he doesn’t get more movies made is because his projects are too controversial to get financing.

Elle, in fact, was supposed to be made in the U.S., but feminist black comedies about sexual abuse and revenge are a hard sell south of the border (who knew?). France was more receptive and now one can’t imagine Elle being made with anyone else than Isabelle Huppert.

I met Verhoeven at the Toronto Film Festival last September. The Dutch director was loquacious and engaged, not one to wallow in his accomplishments so far, but focused on getting his next provocation off the floor. An odd thing he’s proud of? No special effects in his last two movies.

What about Michele (the main character in Elle) appealed to you?

She doesn’t accept compassion because she doesn’t want to feel or be seen as a victim. I established it in the first three minutes of the movie: She gets raped and the first thing she does is cleaning up and taking a bath. It’s her way of saying “this will not destroy me”.

The men in the film are perceived as weak. What are you saying about genre politics?

Elle is not unlike Ingmar Bergman’s work, in which women are almost always stronger than the men. I’m married to a very strong woman, my daughters are very opinionated, we have wonderful intellectual fights. I’m a big fan of women. I’d rather have a coffee with a woman than a beer with a man.

Can you describe your rapport with Huppert?

We didn’t talk. I knew she wanted to do it from the beginning. We didn’t discuss psychology, and just a little bit about nudity, how far we wanted to go. I felt too much explanation would cheapen the outcome. It’s probably the only movie I have made in which I leave a lot to the audience to fill in.

As someone who grew up watching your films, I have to ask you: Why don’t we see more movies from you?

I couldn’t find anything. After Black Book (2006), which is very European, I was looking for an American movie. I wrote three books to fill the time, one of them about historical Jesus. Elle was supposed to be an American film. I got the book translated, just to find out nobody would finance it and that no actress of name wanted to do it. In hindsight, you couldn’t imagine this movie being made in Hollywood. Nobody could have done what Isabelle Huppert does. Her audacity, her strength… she is not a young girl anymore, you know. She is probably the most impressive actor I’ve encountered in my life.

I still come across people who take Starship Troopers at face value, and not as the fascism sendoff it was supposed to be. How does this make you feel?

It’s sometimes depressing. That was the thesis! If you read the Robert Heinlein novel, you’ll notice it’s extremely militaristic and easily could be called fascistic. We liked the idea of fighting bugs, but not the underlying message. With Edward Neumaier (the scriptwriter), we were fighting the novel, we wanted to say “these people are your heroes, but by the way… they are fascists”. I copied a lot of shots from Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, but the audience didn’t know.