Interview: Paul Verhoeven

By Grey, Tobias | The Spectator, March 18, 2017 | Go to article overview

Interview: Paul Verhoeven


Grey, Tobias, The Spectator


Misogynist or feminist? Tobias Grey enters the murky world of controversial director Paul Verhoeven

The enticingly subversive films of Paul Verhoeven were very tempting to me as a schoolboy. When I hit 14, the Dutch director released RoboCop and the excitement among me and my friends at catching two hours of unmitigated ultra-violence reached fever pitch. He did not disappoint.

That was in 1988 and it was interesting later on to read several newspaper articles accusing Verhoeven of having made a fascistic screed in favour of zero-tolerance law enforcement. This was not something any of us had considered up to that point, but satire, yes, even back then we had an inkling of what that was and RoboCop seemed to fit the bill nicely. Verhoeven's latest movie Elle (reviewed by Deborah Ross last week) shows the old powers haven't waned.

If anything his subversiveness has grown more acute, and harder to read. Faithfully adapted from a novel by Frenchman Philippe Djian, Elle stars Isabelle Huppert as Michèle, a successful businesswoman who is raped by a masked intruder after he forces his way into her home. Her immediate reaction is curious to say the least. Instead of calling the police, she calmly brushes up some broken china, takes a bubble bath and orders sushi to share with her adult son, who is coming round to dinner.

As Verhoeven tells it, his original plan had been to make Elle as an American movie. The original screenplay adaptation of Djian's novel Oh... was even written in English. But this avenue was ruled out when all of the American actresses Verhoeven approached to play Michèle turned him down flat. 'The reason wasn't so much because of the rape scenario,' says the 78-year-old director, 'but more because in the third act of the movie we go in a surprising direction after Michèle finds out the identity of her rapist.'

'Surprising' is one way to put it. Misogynistic is another, which is how Melanie McDonagh has described it in The Spectator online. If Elle had been an American movie, as opposed to a French-made one, then no doubt Michèle's part would have been rewritten as some kind of avenging angel in a yellow jumpsuit. That the movie unfolds in a far less predictable fashion as a sort of twisted love story, albeit with a bloody dénouement, feeds into Verhoeven's belief that 'the secret of art is that it should be ambiguous'.

Later in the movie we find out that the reason Michèle has failed to call the police is that in her youth she suffered an enormous amount of unwanted publicity as the daughter of a mass murderer serving a life sentence in prison. 'For me Elle is really about a strong woman who is refusing to become a victim after being victimised enough in her life,' says Verhoeven.

His statement leaves a slightly bitter taste. Doesn't the fact that Michèle falls for her assailant make her just as much a victim of her rape as if she were hell-bent on revenge? Again, with Verhoeven 'art' seems to have its own set of ephemeral rules.

'Isabelle has said the film can almost be seen as a fairytale,' he says. 'Is it really possible in life that somebody would do what she does? Perhaps not, but artistically, apparently yes. Of course it's me talking but I feel that it works. …

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