Katie Tippel Review
Once director Paul Verhoeven had established himself in Holland with the twin successes of Business Is Business, his debut feature, and Turkish Delight, he did what many filmmakers in his position tend to do: he panicked. The director believed that he now had to find a project that could equal, or indeed exceed, the considerable achievement of his first two films, however, nothing offered him seemed worthy enough. After some deliberation, Verhoeven finally settled on another screen adaptation of a literary work, the period drama Katie Tippel (Keetje Tippel). Based on the autobiographical memoirs of Neel Doff (1858-1942), the story, set in late 19th-century Holland, concerns a poverty-stricken young prostitute (‘Tippel’ means street-worker in Dutch) living on the streets of Amsterdam who somehow managed to climb her way up the social ladder to become a wealthy society woman. Verhoeven intended the film to be a grand epic, one that would allow him to portray the abject poverty experienced by members of the lower class in that era, not to mention their appalling exploitation at the hands of the upper class. With events occurring against the backdrop of the uprising of the Dutch socialist movement, the director also wanted to explore the sweeping political and social changes taking place at that time and realised that the film would afford him the opportunity to create large-scale action sequences depicting the widespread turmoil caused by this revolt. However, budgetary constraints imposed on the production forced the disinclined Verhoeven to scale down the size and ambition of the film, pushing the political aspect of the story into the background. This greatly annoyed the director who felt that the subplot involving the socialist movement was dramatically stronger than the rather episodic main story focussing on the central character. This change in emphasis was later considered to be one of the main contributing factors to the film’s eventual artistic failure, the first (but unfortunately not the last) of Verhoeven’s career.
Opening in a rain-soaked harbour in 1881, we are introduced to the central character, Katie Oldema (Monique van de Ven), and her impoverished family who, like many others of their kind, are moving to Amsterdam in search of food and work. Verhoeven seems anxious to establish a grim and dreary atmosphere right from the opening scenes and sure enough, no sooner has Katie and her family set sail for their new home than Katie discovers her sister having sex with one of the sailors on board in exchange for some food. (This scene pretty much sets the tone for the rest of the movie.) Arriving at their new residence, we see the deplorable conditions in which they are forced to live: a filthy, rat-infested basement, prone to flooding, with little food and no source of heating. Given these unfavourable circumstances, when Katie is offered work in a sweatshop by a visiting upper class ‘gent’, she accepts it. Unfortunately, she only manages to last a single day due to the resentful way she is treated by her co-workers and the dreadful conditions in which she must work. Her mother (Andrea Domburg) forces her older sister Mina (Hannah de Leeuwe) to become a prostitute in order to support the family, while Katie suffers through a seemingly endless series of privations, humiliations and abuses, including a brutal rape, being coerced into posing nude (with her sister) for dirty old rich men and having to grant sexual favours to her doctor in order to obtain vital medicine, until she too is eventually intimidated by her unfeeling mother into becoming a street-worker when her sister turns into an unreliable drunk. (Yep, expect a Disney remake real soon.) However, things finally change for Katie when an artist (Peter Faber) fortuitously picks her up off the street and asks her to become his model. She, of course, enthusiastically accepts and suddenly finds herself mixing with members of high society. Although initially unsure of herself, Katie revels in her new surroundings and soon hooks up with Hugo (Rutger Hauer), a ruthlessly ambitious young banker, learning from him what it takes to get ahead in society. But having established a new identity for herself among the rich, can she forget her past? Will she turn her back on her family? Can she hide her former life from others? Frankly, do we still even care?
I consider myself a fan of Verhoeven’s work and was hoping to find that Katie Tippel was not as bad as some critics had made it out to be. Alas, aside from some reasonably effective moments and Verhoeven’s commendable attention to period detail, Katie Tippel proves to be a huge disappointment. The director claims that the film is about the despicable exploitation and hypocrisy practised in that era by the rich in their treatment of the lower classes and yes, the film certainly goes out of its way to portray that historical reality. Verhoeven puts his central character through about as much suffering and hardship as the audience is prepared to take, particularly in the film’s first hour. To wit: in the sweatshop, Katie is forced to wash clothes in lye-filled water, making her hands bleed; Katie is savagely raped by her boss; Katie is forced to work as a prostitute; Katie is later used by banker Hugo to determine which of his clients are financially viable or not; and so on. Again and again, we are shown in typically blunt Verhoeven fashion how the rich use poor unfortunates like Katie to their own advantage. Indeed, we can see that vindictiveness and exploitation are not merely confined to the upper classes: early on in the film, Katie is also subjected to the cruelty of her equally destitute co-workers who regard her as too outspoken and rebellious, and, of course, more conspicuously, we see the degradation she endures owing to either emotional blackmail by her sister or outright bullying from her mother. So why doesn’t the film work? Verhoeven has said of Katie Tippel that it is “full of mistakes and erroneous ideas” and fundamentally, the reason for its failure is precisely because the director’s characteristically hyper-realistic, naturalistic approach to the material emphasises the very narrative deficiencies he worried about when he originally agreed to undertake the film.
Ultimately, Katie Tippel spends far too much time chronicling the many miseries endured by its protagonist, and Verhoeven’s renowned lack of subtlety sadly robs the film of any real emotional credibility. The depiction of poverty – a toilet hole situated next to the kitchen table, a scrawny old dog pulling a cart - is a classic case of ‘over-egging the pudding’, and rather than portraying squalour, the film is too often just plain squalid and at times distasteful – a dead dog being dropped in a toilet, the rape scene, to name but two examples. The in-your-face hyper-realism evident in Turkish Delight becomes very tedious here, and a kind of self-conscious gloominess pervades the entire film, not unlike that seen in Alan Parker’s depressing Angela Ashes, where events are portrayed in the worst light possible. As a result, rather than offering the viewer an illuminating look at a sad chapter in Dutch history, the film ends up as an interminable and often ridiculously melodramatic collection of tawdry tales with no real depth. It fails to rise above the narrative shortcomings Verhoeven sought to avoid, instead becoming a victim of the director’s self-indulgent overemphasis on sex and sexuality. As even Verhoeven himself admits on the audio commentary, he had been unable to get his previous film, the erotically charged Turkish Delight, out of his system and felt that Katie Tippel suffered as a result.
[Actually, it is interesting to note how similar both Katie Tippel and Verhoeven’s later Hollywood flop, Showgirls, are in terms of both theme and how they were received by critics and audiences alike when they were first released. In both cases, the main story line concerns a protagonist, a strong-willed and opportunistic young woman, determined to survive in a harsh and unforgiving environment peopled by callous, hypocritical and ruthless characters keen to exploit her. Yet, out of this world of egotism and cutthroat ambition, the protagonist somehow manages to come out on top by becoming just as hard-nosed and as ruthless as those who have tried to take advantage of her. (Intriguingly, although not actually depicted in the film, Verhoeven points out in the commentary that the real-life Katie became a capitalist just like her upper-class ‘benefactors’ and ended up forsaking her own kind.) It is even more interesting to note that both of these films were made directly after the phenomenal successes of two of Verhoeven’s most sexually explicit films, namely Turkish Delight and Basic Instinct. Showgirls was considered too outrageous and overblown, too sexually candid, when it was first released, and one can only wonder if its critical and artistic failure can be attributed to the same syndrome as was the case with Katie Tippel – the director’s inability to escape the overt sexuality of the previous work.]
As I’ve mentioned, Verhoeven believed that Katie’s story, based on the anecdotal recollections of an older woman looking back on her early life many years after the fact, was by itself too disjointed and episodic, certainly nowhere near as intriguing as the ‘bigger’ story taking place in the background, and planned to expand the film’s narrative to take in the upheaval caused by the socialist movement at that time. Although overruled by the limited budget, the director still found room in the film to highlight the climate of political and social change prevalent in Holland at that time, even if it is restricted to the periphery of the story. The discord triggered by the growth of socialism in Holland seems like a fascinating topic to explore in a movie (particularly, as Verhoeven indicates in his audio commentary, since socialist democracy is still the dominant political party in that country) but frustratingly, every time the subject arises in the film, it is all-too-quickly brushed aside, denying the audience the opportunity to learn more about it. In an early scene in the sweatshop, for example, Katie’s co-workers coax her into singing a song; she chooses one about the workers’ revolution, angering her fellow workmates who brand her as a disloyal agitator. Conversely, in another scene set in an upper-class restaurant, Katie and her new rich friends enjoy a troupe of dancers performing a song-and-dance routine with a distinctly pro-socialist slant, and we become aware of the central political irony of the film: that members of the ruling class were often more likely to endorse the ideals of socialism than the poor themselves were. Verhoeven even manages to squeeze in a riot scene between the police and the socialist protesters in the last act of the movie, raising our hopes that the film is about to become more politically orientated but unfortunately, this turns out to be something of an anti-climax, and the film simply peters out. It does seem like a great opportunity lost, and one wonders how Katie Tippel might have turned out had Verhoeven been given the financial resources he needed to make the political epic he intended in the first place.
To be fair, though, I should say that the film isn’t all bad. In its favour, Jan de Bont’s evocative cinematography, influenced by painters like Dali and Toulouse-Lautrec, occasionally manages to transcend the gloominess of the film’s milieu, and Verhoeven successfully creates an authentic sense of time and place, particularly impressive given the film’s limited budget. Despite my efforts to make the film sound like the worst kind of grey-maker, there are some effective sequences to be found within, like the scene where Katie tries to bluff her way through an expensive dinner, or, indeed, many of the scenes involving her and her new beau, Hugo. If truth be told, the performances too are better than expected; Hauer is his usual charismatic-but-unpredictable self, and I have to say I was fairly impressed with star Monique van de Ven, who carried herself well in a difficult role, especially given the film’s troubled production (see ‘Extras’ section below). I had only seen her in Verhoeven’s previous hit, Turkish Delight, and felt that her natural vivacity and modernity in that film would be utterly inappropriate in a period piece like this but it actually seems to work in her favour. Her portrayal of Katie emphasises the character’s tenacity and independence, traits which allow her to break free of her life of poverty and hardship, thus making the transition to upper-class socialite more believable; on the other hand, her child-like naïveté allows Katie to come across as slightly uncomfortable and out-of-her-depth among the rich, and it is a testament to van de Ven’s likeability as an actress that her character always remains somehow sympathetic even when her behaviour is less than compassionate. However, in the final analysis, the film’s flaws greatly exceed its merits, and Katie Tippel remains a disappointing experience, one that regrettably promises its audience much more than it ever truly delivers. A pity.
The film is presented in an anamorphic 1.66:1 aspect ratio and the picture quality is generally acceptable. There are few signs of print damage aside from the occasional white speck and the quality of the transfer is well up to scratch. Edge enhancement is minimal, there are no signs of artefacting but there is quite a lot of grain visible throughout the picture. Colours, deliberately dull and muted in the film, are nicely rendered, black level is good and the overall detail of the image is satisfactory.
Presented in Dutch Dolby 2.0 mono (with optional English subtitles), the film is mainly dialogue-based, offering little in the way of sonic thrills to justify a more dynamic soundtrack. The dialogue comes across nice and clear, although there is occasional background hiss, while the music score sounds very pleasant. A reasonable effort.
Anchor Bay have impressed me with the extras they gathered for their other ‘Paul Verhoeven Collection’ releases and I’m glad to say that Katie Tippel is no exception. The disc contains dissolving menus accompanied by music from the film; the film itself is contained on 25 chapters. The extras include a still gallery with 22 photos, detailed talent bios of director Paul Verhoeven and stars Monique van de Ven and Rutger Hauer, and two trailers, one German and one American (unsurprisingly, both are eager to highlight the film’s extensive sex and nudity; in fact, the American one is unintentionally hilarious, the voiceover proudly stating that Katie Tippel is “an unforgettable masterpiece already acclaimed as the best foreign film of the last ten years” before going on to use words like “a powerful story woven from the fabric of human behaviour…raw, real…filled with the juices of life.” An absolute hoot.)
However, like the other Anchor Bay releases, the best extra on the disc is the audio commentary from the director himself. Verhoeven’s commentaries are always funny, insightful and informative, and to be frank, his remarks here concerning the film and its production, not to mention the story’s historical background, prove to be a lot more interesting than the film itself. He discusses the real-life Neel Doff, disclosing some surprising details about her later life. Indeed, Verhoeven reveals that he had intended to use a framing device (set many years after the events shown) which would have allowed the audience to learn exactly what kind of person the central character turned out to be. However, the scene never made it into the finished film, and the director is honest and forthright about these kinds of mistakes made during production. Verhoeven also discusses such topics as his difficulties with the script, the influence of Impressionist painters on the film’s look, and, most notably, the rather tense environment on set. This, we learn, was mainly caused by the friction between star Monique van de Ven and her then husband, cinematographer Jan de Bont, who was none too keen on his wife’s involvement in such a sexually explicit picture. He also talks about the political situation in Holland both then and now, his work with regular collaborators like Hauer and de Bont, and his ill-advised preoccupation with the film’s depiction of sexuality. Generally speaking, this is an entertaining and illuminating commentary that almost makes up for the disappointment of the film. Almost.
The audio and video are fine, the extras are good, but the film itself fails to impress. Although Katie Tippel was a moderate commercial success when it was finally released in Holland, it was slaughtered by the critics who considered it a wasted opportunity. All things considered, I am forced to agree with them, and this DVD is likely to appeal to Verhoeven completists and hardcore fans only.