Paul Verhoeven Collection Review
I believe that if you asked Paul Verhoeven just why he is so interested in what are the most animal characteristics of human beings, he would claim that he only sees ourselves as we truly are. From the evidence of his career, the human race is brutal, obsessed with sex and money, and nowhere near as "evolved" as it would like to think; rather than search for deeper meaning in who they are, his characters are placed in their various situations and they do what any horny, greedy, and dirty skinbag would. Whilst more socially concerned directors would have no problem with a human race on the verge of the bestial, they might baulk at the idea of celebrating the basic, and often vulgar behaviour, that Verhoeven revels in.
This joy in what others may consider our basic moral shabbiness is present in the box set on review from Verhoeven's début through to 1983's The Fourth Man. Sexual kinks and anti-social behaviour are par for the course for the director, and he positively insists that his characters display all of these dubious qualities in all his films. Business is Business begins the set, and is a bawdy story of the life of two prostitutes, the desires of their clients, and their twin efforts to transcend their careers by finding love or respectability. Meanwhile the director concerns himself with the cheerful and open vulgarity of the two women at the film's heart and the sexual role-playing of seemingly decent men who visit them.
Verhoeven contrasts the hypocrisy of those keeping up appearances with the women's wickedly debauched lives, but doesn't spare the audience the truth as well with violent pimps, envy, and materialism never far from the surface. The film eschews any didactic moralising and becomes warmly affectionate of its cast, warts and all. By the end, one of the women has searched unsuccessfully fo love, and the other finds an escape through a husband and boring routine, but Verhoeven wants to keep them from real harm and to celebrate their dirty jokes, their sense of rebellion and their unrealised hopes. There is no dark denunciation of the evil of selling your body, no cultured elevation of the spirit, the film merely shows simply people being their dirty greedy selves laughing their asses off as they get through.
Next in the set is Verhoeven's breakthrough film, Turkish Delight, which follows a rapid romance between the instinctive and rebellious Erik, played by Rutger Hauer, and the bourgeois and enigmatic Olga. It's easy to call the film a Dutch Love Story despite its unfailingly frank depiction of both Erik's whoring and the painful central relationship, and the sentiments at the film's core are every bit as populist as the Hiller monstrosity. It's easy to see Verhoeven cashing in and making a very manipulative movie, but that doesn't mean it isn't also provocative, extreme, and rather erotic in a way few movies with such a broad appeal are.
Erik is a sculptor with attitude that we join after his marriage has broken up and he seeks women to distract him and to remind him of the woman he has lost. Opening with a vengeance fantasy played out with extreme prejudice, and then some rather desperate nude shots of Erik in his shattered studio flat, this is a film that seeks to be much more visceral and earthy than the candy floss product of Hollywood. The scatalogical humour touches on gags that are a touch icky, and being in love means everything from being your lover's punch bag through to checking their excrement for signs of cancer. Now you couldn't see Ryan O'Neal inspecting Ali McGraw's stool, could you?
Jan De Bont's cinematography shows Verhoeven's straightforward style developing with some wonderfully framed shots of Olga naked, and a stupendously diabolical family get together shot in intense red light which looks more like a vision of hell than a clan knees-up. The film shows far more confidence than his début with dramatic development, and it successfully captures the giddying and intoxicating romance between the lovers without ever becoming mawkish. Importantly, the director celebrates the couple who shame convention - Erik rejects social niceties at funerals and official functions, and Olga's breasts almost cause a diplomatic incident for the Queen. This relationship is celebrated as a beacon of instinctiveness, sincere feeling and lusty need, and we are left to love it much as the director does.
Katie Tippel is the story of a young woman coming to Amsterdam at the end of the Nineteenth century with her impoverished family. It is another portrait of someone exceptional, who this time survives her poor circumstances through force of spirit, survival instinct, and verve. Kaatje is too individualist to survive working in a factory for even a day, and her efforts at working in a dress shop are talented but thwarted by jealousy and she finds herself raped by her boss. Soon she is following her sister into the world of prostitution and is lucky to pick up a young communist artist who introduces her to his friends, and to a budding romance with banker Rutger Hauer.
This has a wonderful sweep and charm to it, one that is as earthy and cheerfully vulgar as the previous films in this collection, but one that values its depiction of terrible poverty, social strife and dark history. Verhoeven has a little fun with the attitudes of the toff communists, who praise a political painting's nobility in the peasants faces whilst Kaatje refutes this by saying that they actually see is hunger. Kaatje's family proves this in spades by surviving through any means necessary and are as common as muck, Kaatje's sister even wallows in her behaviour such as using a page of a Jules Verne novel as toilet paper. Similarly, Kaatje's mother forces her daughter into street walking, and has child after child - this is no "noble" poor family, and when Kaatje leaves them she has to kick them off her clothes as they cling to their breadwinner. Verhoeven refuses to show poverty as good for the soul and accepts his characters attempts to survive despite it. Apparently, the film was much truncated in production and saddled with an alternative ending and the Director remembers it unhappily, but I really enjoyed a more earnest approach from someone who has since become a supreme ironist.
Kaatje's eventual embourgeoisement and escape comes after she has deserted her family and requires her to bring ruin to others as a spy for her banker lover. She may appreciate being out of poverty but staying there involves stepping on other people, and she finds that she too is replaceable by a better match for her lover. Kaatje survives, she flourishes, and she is remarkable for this, and the film finishes with the information that this was a true story. Verhoeven has debunked myths and ignored political niceties, to show the tale of an amazing woman who lived an incredible, individual life. Katie Tippel is a magnificently shot film, and a joyous journey through penury with the wonderful Monique Van De Ven charismatic and compelling as the title character.
Soldier of Orange is bravura film-making, the clearest example in this set of what Verhoeven would be able to do with Hollywood sized budgets. It is set around the onset of the second world war and concentrates on a group of student friends in the Hague as war takes them in different directions. One, Alex, does the bidding of his German mother and becomes a Nazi, Jan, a Jew, tries to escape the occupation, and Erik, Guus and Robby join up with the resistance. This is an epic, often brutal film which tries to nakedly represent the truth about the war as it affected the Dutch.
Verhoeven returned to this territory with Black Book most recently, and that film's ability to annoy those who wanted a kinder more dogmatic history is more subtle here. Verhoeven makes clear that his characters fight for survival first and fun second, morality means little for them with the sole exception of Jan. The bigots and cowards that Nazi occupations relied on are also in plentiful supply, and Verhoeven even implies that fascism is never far from the surface in all of his characters through scenes like the opening hazing sequence. The film's hero is Erik, played once again by Hauer, but even his daring do is undermined by his unwillingness to put the cause ahead of friendship, a fact emphasised by a tango with the Nazi Alex which swaps the two men's' silhouettes back and forth.
The dramatic sweep of Katie Tippel is replicated here on a huge scale as we are taken through stories of betrayal, collaboration, and the readiness of human beings to be beasts. Largely the director allows his characters their prejudices and sins but the story does visit truth on some characters such as Jan, and payback on others such as Alex. This relatively, compared to the other films here, large production is a joy and carries some of the chutzpah of many a war film before it whilst keeping a uniquely Dutch perspective. Its best quality is that it ensures that even if the action is simple and straightforward, the underlying morality is far from that.
The Fourth Man is a joyful debunking of the thriller genre. Constantly, Verhoeven sets up Hitchcockian situations to turn away from them at the last moment, or to not give the audience the expected pay-off. The cool blonde femme fatale, the castration complex, the train sequences, the meaningful dreams and the deja vu, all of these devices are used then twisted in a completely different direction. Where the thriller master set up layers of meaning, explored psychoanalysis and played with archetypes and his own fears, Verhoeven creates a film where significance, and the search for it, brings carnage.
Jeroen Krabbe is the anti-Cary Grant or James Stewart, a bisexual leading man who admits from the beginning, that "I lie the truth". In his own mind, he falls into the thrall of black widow Renee Soutendjik and tries to use her to get to her gorgeous lover Thom Hoffman. His recurring dream images of a young mother, a gouged out eye and a spooky hotel lead him to the view that he or Hoffman will be the widow's fourth victim, but does the outcome of his reading of symbols lead to falling into a trap or self-sabotage? Verhoeven revels in this antithetical and rebellious approach, homaging 39 Steps, Vertigo and Spellbound but actually choosing a completely different take on his subject to that of the great director.
The film also reflects a frustration with his homeland, where Krabbe's author is given lines about the poverty of opportunity in Holland. Verhoeven's fascination with the iconography of Christ is present throughout and determinedly blasphemous with irony dripping from the opening and closing shots of crucifixes witnessing alcoholic stupor and madness respectively. The Fourth Man sees Verhoeven at his most rebellious and anti-intellectual, as he revels in exposing the hi falutin and the supposedly meaningful. By the time of this film the cheerful bawdiness of earlier projects has been replaced by an assured and audacious approach. This audacity, and unmatched sense of pastiche, was to be the joy of his Hollywood films, along with his continued rampant delight in the whole human comedy.
The five existing Tartan releases of Verhoeven's films have been reissued here in slimline cases with new cover art housed in a thin white printed box, only Soldier of Orange is a dual layered disc. All five region free discs come with relatively minor extras of filmographies for leading cast and the director and theatrical trailers, I have listed in the side panel which actors are covered in addition to Verhoeven. Each film has some short film notes which document Verhoeven's career with his rows with producer Rob Houwer, drops nuggets about De Bont rowing with his wife, Van De Ven, on set, and talks about the director's false start in Hollywood. These introductions to the film will prove very interesting to those new to the director.
The transfers for the films are a mixed bag with quality at its best with The Fourth Man and worst with the earlier films in the set. Business is Business gets a window boxed 1.55:1 transfer with pinkish skin tones and a very dark appearance, which may be excused slightly due to the age of the film and quality of the print. Turkish Delight gets a window boxed anamorphic transfer of around 1.66:1, which is again slightly dark and this time flesh tones look very hot to me, and I noticed compression artefacts, minor print hairs and scuffs and less than subtle edge enhancement. Katie Tippel comes letterboxed at 1.66:1, the print is far from clean and colour timing seems well off with a very dark aspect to the film. Soldier of Orange is presented at 1.66:1 anamorphic and the transfer is an improvement from the previous three but contrast seems too strong and the image seems soft overall, edges are again a concern. The transfer for The Fourth Man is the strongest here with colours at their most natural, and the overall image showing much more detail in this 1.66:1 anamorphic treatment. Even the best transfer is far from perfect in this set, and I am sure that all these films could have received better treatment.
All of the films seem to possess mono tracks, and a brief bit of research suggests they were all filmed in mono, however the box art claims they are in stereo. The quality of the sound is not stellar with distortion present on all five films, and the three earlier films seeming to have some pops and hiss and rare moments of tape noise. Clarity could be improved on the earlier films but all five films have solid soundtracks. Subtitles are optional throughout
These aren't the greatest presentations of these films, but the price of this region free pack makes this a no-brainer for anyone wanting to catch up on Verhoeven's earlier career.