I thought about The Fourth Man, a thriller Verhoeven made in his Dutch period filled with bizarre religious images, sex triangles, and sudden gore, and knew this was one of my guilty pleasures. And then I started to think of the director’s other films and found myself lost in a sea of guilt.
Paul Verhoeven, in both Holland and the U.S., has made an entire career of guilty pleasures. Of the early pictures, there is the sex melodrama Turkish Delight, the closest to masterpiece he’s ever come with the spy drama Soldier of Orange, like I mentioned before The Fourth Man (a sort of early, better Basic Instinct), and the motorcycle soap opera Spetters.
These pictures are not refined. They are crude, abrupt, unhinged; they explode in unpredictable ways.
It has been a while since I saw Turkish Delight. The first half of the picture plays out with bizarre car crash and several scenes of nudity and sex. This clip from one of those scenes displays the kind of sudden, odd directions Verhoeven takes his story. The choices have the freshness of the best student filmmaking, not yet aligned with a bored set of standards.
Soldier of Orange starts with an initiation. Rutger Hauer enters a sort of Dutch version of the fraternity-hazing where he and other rookies are thrown into a room of madness. They are beaten, thrown around, clutched in pseudo-homosexual grasps and later Hauer is forced to sing while an established member pours soup on his head and finally crashes the entire bowl over him. Verhoeven, with his camera that feels like it can float anywhere, tilt anyway, rush forward or away, creates a world so strange in only a few minutes that the rest of the film, a battle against Nazis, seems sort of normal. Here is the scene:
In The Fourth Man, Verhoeven begins with a spider. It crawls through the dusty apartment of our main character and lingers on a crucifix. The lead, played by Jeroen Krabbe of Fugitive-villain-fame, gets out of bed. He coughs a lot, hears music from somewhere in the house. He comes out and strangles his male lover. Stop. No, he didn’t strangle him. It was just a hallucination. Next we go to the train station where Krabbe is traveling to a writer’s conference. He sees a woman. She reminds him of something. He stares at a painting above her head of the Last Supper. The painting starts to bleed. Blood drips all over her and her baby. Stop. It’s really a busted tomato in the luggage compartment above. Somehow, though Verhoeven seems to have made these choices for pure shock value, they don’t come across as merely tricks. The images, however ridiculous in nature, build and build throughout the film into a realm of sex and violence, where the world doesn’t make sense but I don’t care because it’s so sensational. Here are two clips: the opening credit sequence and then one of his flashes of gore (a moment where supposed “art” film dives into “B-movie” cinema)
In Spetters, a friendly motorcycle event turns ugly when a girl splashes hot grease on a man’s chest over a couple of dollars. This sudden action arrives and departs, the movie returns to its agenda but somehow this scene, strangely honest, lingers in my mind far after it’s over. At another point, one of the three racers the plot follows runs from a gang into a subway station. It is abandoned. He is caught and the gang decides to rape him. Afterwards, he is friends with the guy who raped him. This extreme event has somehow connected with him and allowed him knowledge of his self. Here and in The Fourth Man, Verhoeven explores homosexuality but there is no fluidity to his study. At points, his characters chase and beat homosexuals with no remorse, and at other points they discover their own sexuality is not what they thought. It all funnels into the giant mess that is a Verhoeven picture.
Perhaps I cannot communicate my affection for these movies fully. They capture my attention, drag me through a gutter of guilt, and leave me fulfilled.
Here is the trailer for Spetters. Next I will explore some of Verhoeven’s Hollywood creations.