Turkish Delight Review
Dutch director Paul Verhoeven has earned a reputation as one of the most controversial and confrontational filmmakers of his generation (indeed, of any generation.) Hailed as ‘the Sultan of Shock’ and ‘the Mad Dutchman’ by various critics over the years, this notorious director seems to have the innate ability to rub people the wrong way with his uncompromisingly frank and provocative treatment of the darker side of human nature, in particular his preoccupation with those two great bugbears of the censors, sex and violence. Indeed, whether it be his earlier work in Holland or his more big-budget ventures in Hollywood, each of his films have managed to upset the Moral Majority with their graphic depictions of human sexuality, bloody violence and pervasive amorality. However, focusing on the inevitable controversy triggered by his work is to ignore the fact that Verhoeven has consistently made films that genuinely challenge the viewer with their harsh, in-your-face and uncompromising take on society. The unsentimental depiction of the effects of war on a small circle of friends in Soldier Of Orange, the deliciously sly mockery of highbrow artistic sensibilities in The Fourth Man, the bleak, darkly humorous futurescape of Robocop with its viciously satirical view of corporate America, the dream/reality confusion of Total Recall and the gleefully un-PC antics of Basic Instinct all provide ample proof of ‘the Mad Dutchman’s’ talent for provoking extreme reactions from his audience. Love him or hate him, Verhoeven’s work is rarely dull and certainly hard to ignore. He is one of the few genuinely bold and daring filmmakers working in Hollywood today, and if his work in recent years has been disappointingly superficial (Hollow Man) or just plain miscalculated (the deplorable Showgirls), his supremely entertaining, not to mention wonderfully subversive, sci-fi adventure, Starship Troopers, serves as a good reminder that he is still capable of producing films that rise above the sterile unoriginality of the conventional Hollywood blockbuster.
For his second Dutch feature film, Verhoeven chose to adapt Jan Wolkers’s semi-autobiographical novel ‘Turks Fruit’ for the screen. The book had been extremely popular in Holland, the director’s native country, and Verhoeven felt that it could be translated into an equally successful film. Made in 1973, Turkish Delight opens in typical Verhoeven fashion with an apparently inexplicable act of shocking brutality. A young man savagely beats another man’s brains out before shooting a young girl in the head. This, we quickly learn, is not an actual event but rather a revenge fantasy conjured up in the mind of the ‘attacker’, Eric Vonk (Rutger Hauer). Eric is a free-spirited but temperamental young artist who has recently lost the woman in his life, Olga (Monique van de Ven) and wishes to avenge himself on her. He believes he can accomplish this by picking up a series of women and having sex with them before quickly and cruelly dismissing them. This proves to be an utterly futile exercise, however, and Eric soon realises that his feelings for Olga run deeper than he had ever anticipated. At this point, the film jumps back two years to where we discover how Eric first met the child-like and uninhibited Olga and how their initially intensely sexual relationship blossomed into something much deeper. The couple decide to get married but face significant obstacles in their path, not least of which is Olga’s detestable mother (Tonny Huurdeman) who does not care for Eric or his bohemian lifestyle and wants her daughter married to someone more conventional. Olga’s irrational but nonetheless persistent fear of death, and Eric’s difficulty in expressing his feelings for her in any way other than sexually mean that their relationship is in a near-permanent state of jeopardy and the circumstances that force the pair apart will be revealed to the audience before the story returns to the present for the film’s melodramatic but strangely moving final act.
It has to be said that Turkish Delight possesses a flagrantly no-holds-barred approach toward its portrayal of the couple’s wild and unrepressed sexual behaviour. Intending viewers are warned that scenes of male and female full-frontal nudity, explicit sex and earthy, occasionally distasteful language are in abundance so don’t say you haven’t been warned. That said, Verhoeven somehow manages to escape charges of exploitation by injecting genuine vitality and humour into many of these sequences, for example, the aftermath of the couple’s first lovemaking scene is a funny and excruciating forerunner to the similarly memorable ‘zipper’ scene in There’s Something About Mary. Indeed, the film is often at its funniest during such scenes of intimacy, like the series of frustrating disruptions the couple endure while they try to make love for the first time after getting married or Eric’s cavalier behaviour towards the many women he screws in the opening scenes. (O.K. not exactly politically correct in the latter case but I dare you not to giggle when you see it.) The film successfully avoids being pornographic because its frank, uninhibited treatment of youthful sexuality simply communicates the joy and fun of sex: it celebrates sex. It must be pointed out, however, that this belief in celebrating life and all its delights is also used in the film as a means of fending off death, allowing the central characters to wilfully ignore concerns of mortality, another important theme of the film. Eric is a character who wishes to live life to the fullest, and the vivacious Olga is attracted to that passion and exuberance, but she is also haunted by her own sense of mortality. The film is thus filled with life-threatening incidents and images of death and decay – aside from obvious examples like the death of Olga’s father and the couple’s near-fatal car crash, we observe Olga’s hysterical reaction to finding ‘blood’ when she goes to the toilet, believing that she now has cancer. We notice the maggots left on Olga’s chest when Eric removes a bunch of flowers from her in another scene. We also note her angry reaction towards Eric when, in another scene, he pretends to gag from drinking fake poison. Death casts a constant, dismal shadow over the couple’s lives, and the film’s tragic outcome confirms screenwriter Gerard Soeteman’s belief that Turkish Delight is “not so much about eroticism as coming to terms with the loss of someone very dear to you.”
The film’s exploration of love, sex and death has meant that Turkish Delight has been favourably compared with Last Tango In Paris but although both films are thematically similar, the approach here is quite different. Turkish Delight has none of the Bertolucci film’s solemnity, or indeed its polished directorial artistry, and it certainly does not contain any performances to rival the intensity of Brando’s tour-de-force, but it is, for better or worse, a far braver film in terms of sexual explicitness and it is much more even-handed in the way it sketches its two central characters. Rutger Hauer brings just the right blend of youthful desire and artistic unpredictability to his role, his character appearing likeably kind-hearted at times and contemptibly self-centred and destructive at others. Monique van de Ven conveys a striking natural sensuality along with a child-like innocence in her role, and, although I felt her performance tended to get a little too hysterical in some of the more emotionally chaotic scenes, both actors spark off each other very well. The rest of the supporting cast also perform effectively. I haven’t read the original novel on which the film is based so I cannot comment on how faithful Verhoeven and screenwriter Gerard Soeteman have been to the source material but Verhoeven has indicated that his film is a more accurate and brutally honest account of writer Wolkers and his life experiences than the author himself managed with his own book! Verhoeven apparently retained the non-linear structure of the book and it works reasonably well here. Setting aside the disturbing opening fantasy scenes, the earlier, high-spirited sequences of erotic ecstasy give way to a more sombre, sporadically unsettling feel for the latter part of the movie as the film goes from seriocomic to tragic. Although the film manages the transition well enough, the change in tone is not always entirely effective: one controversial scene where Eric more or less forces himself on Olga in an attempt to win her back may not endear Turkish Delight to some viewers. Additionally, some of the film’s final scenes veer dangerously close to becoming sentimental and, indeed, the film itself is often too melodramatic at times – one scene at an unveiling ceremony where Eric and Olga find themselves being physically restrained by the visiting Queen’s security men is, as even Verhoeven admits in the audio commentary, seriously overcooked.
Visually, Verhoeven’s and cameraman Jan de Bont’s use of extensive on-location filming, natural lighting and frequent handheld camerawork achieves the raw, spontaneous and naturalistic look they were obviously aiming for, and taken with the film’s explicit sexuality and frank dialogue (harsh, provocative, though occasionally poignant), the film undoubtedly lives up to its reputation as “an all-out assault on bourgeois sensibilities”, as one critic described it. Turkish Delight’s in-your-face hyper-realism often feels like it is literally being shoved in one’s face, indeed, the film’s sometimes unsavoury predilection for displaying all manner of bodily functions in unflinching detail does not exactly hinder the cause of those critics who believe Verhoeven wouldn’t know subtlety if it jumped up and punched him on the nose. Certainly, Verhoeven’s film has its fair share of melodramatic, uncomfortable and just plain ugly scenes, and it can be too heavy-handed at times, particularly in its use of symbolism – Eric nursing a seagull back to health, for example. Nevertheless, despite its flaws, Turkish Delight remains an audacious, energetic and challenging exploration of sexuality and mortality, love and loss, and, for trivia fans, it is still the most successful Dutch film ever produced. [It also received a surprising Academy Award nomination in 1974 for Best Foreign Language film but was beaten by Truffaut’s Day For Night.]
Presented in anamorphic 1.66:1, the print used appears to be in excellent shape and no print damage, dirt, white specks or any debris was noticeable. The transfer itself is a little on the soft side and grain is visible (particularly during the darker scenes) along with occasional artefacting but generally, this is an extremely watchable disc. Colours are nicely presented for the most part (although some fading was evident at times), black level is pretty good and shadow detail is adequate. Overall, this is probably the best the film has ever looked on the small screen.
The film is presented in the original Dutch mono soundtrack only (with optional English subtitles in yellow) and there is really nothing else to be said except it does the job nicely. Dialogue is clear and hiss-free, and the music (consisting of a ‘70s laidback jazz soundtrack) comes across very well.
This DVD was released as part of Anchor Bay’s ‘Paul Verhoeven Collection’ and the extras they have gathered for this release are pretty good. First of all, the disc has static menus accompanied by music from the film. The film itself is contained on a generous 29 chapters.
The extras consist of a photo gallery of 31 production stills, a (subtitled) theatrical trailer (in widescreen), detailed talent biographies of director Paul Verhoeven and stars Rutger Hauer and Monique van de Ven, and a characteristically appealing commentary from the madman himself, Paul Verhoeven.
In it, he describes his working relationship with long-time collaborators like DoP Jan de Bont (now, of course, a well-known director in his own right with Speed, Twister, etc.) and Rutger Hauer (who, it is mentioned, had a turbulent relationship with the director on the subsequent films they made together.) Verhoeven also discusses writer Jan Wolkers and the liberties he took in translating the author’s novel to the screen, the technical improvisations brought about by the film’s budgetary constraints as well as the technical errors that were made during production, what he believes works in the film and what doesn’t, and so on. He also talks about the film’s themes of sex, love and death, his use of symbolism throughout the movie, his reasons for choosing the actors, even discussing the differences between Dutch and American filmmaking sensibilities from a director’s point-of-view. If his commentary is a little too over-explanatory at times, at least it is never dull and it offers some interesting insights into Verhoeven’s filmmaking philosophy.
The audio and video are well up to scratch and the extras are better than average. The film itself is one of Verhoeven’s finest earlier works so if you enjoy his incendiary brand of filmmaking, then this is the DVD for you.
Last updated: 05/05/2018 11:07:44