Paul Verhoeven Talks 'Elle' and Why He Fled to Hollywood

By Macnab, Geoffrey | Screen International, November 14, 2016 | Go to article overview

Paul Verhoeven Talks 'Elle' and Why He Fled to Hollywood


Macnab, Geoffrey, Screen International


How does it feel as a Dutch director best known for Hollywood movies to be flying the flag for France in the foreign-language Oscar race? "It feels funny," reflects Paul Verhoeven. "It feels extraordinary."

The film in question is Elle, which premiered in Cannes and sees Isabelle Huppert give a bravura performance as a businesswoman who finds a way to get back at her aggressor after she is violently raped. Verhoeven is quick to point out that he and his editor Job ter Burg are Dutch, screenwriter David Birke is American and composer Anne Dudley is British. "Nevertheless, the French were willing to use it as their movie [for the foreign-language Oscar]," he says. "It is stunning that was possible. It tells you of a certain open-mindedness in France. I would say it is the counter of Brexit."

Back home in the Netherlands, the director expects there will be mixed feelings about his success with a French-made feature. "They [the Dutch] have always been extremely ambiguous in their appreciation for me. At the time I was working in Holland and making very successful movies, the more successful they were, the more they hated me.

"I really fled Holland in 1985 because the committees that give you money didn't want to give it to me any more because they thought I made 'entertainment movies', low level, disgusting, perverted and portraying Dutch society in the wrong way." Sometimes, Verhoeven concedes, the Dutch are "proud" of him now "when necessity dictates", but generally he feels he is still regarded with suspicion.

Over the years, Verhoeven's films have had their share of awards and Oscar nominations. They have also attracted plenty of brickbats. His much-maligned 1995 movie Showgirls won seven Razzies for the worst film of the year, and Verhoeven was in the audience to accept these dubious honours. Twenty years on, he is strangely philosophical about the experience. He had never heard of the Golden Raspberries, but was invited along to the ceremony by a TV personality friend.

"He said, 'You're nominated for many!' I said, 'OK, why not.' Of course, in the beginning it was really harsh because people were making fun of the movie in the most horrible way. I thought, 'My god, what did I do to myself?' But I stayed. What was so nice was that I had to walk forward seven times because I was the only representative of Showgirls."

At the beginning of the evening, Verhoeven recalls, he was an object of derision but, by the time he had come on stage to collect his seventh and final Razzie, the dynamic of the evening had changed completely. There was overwhelming sympathy for him and everyone was up on their feet, applauding.

CAREER BEST?

There is little chance that Elle will receive any such dubious plaudits. The film, adapted from Philippe Djian's 2012 novel Oh..., is being talked about as possibly Verhoeven's finest, a thriller that is also a beautifully observed comedy of manners. The film feels very French, and has layers of irony that will not be found in Basic Instinct; there are moments here that rekindle memories of Luis Buñuel's The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie. At the same time, the film probes at some very uncomfortable themes relating to sex, desire and violence.

Its main character, Michele LeBlanc (Huppert), is very difficult to fathom. …

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