The outspoken Dutch filmmaker discusses his triumphant return to cinema, Elle.
It’s been 10 long years since Paul Verhoeven last graced cinema screens with Black Book. That film marked a return to his native Netherlands after a run of six US productions. Those films – beginning with RoboCop in 1987 and culminating in Hollow Man 13 years later – staked his place as the foremost satirist of American culture in commercial cinema, each film smuggling a dirty bomb of subversion into the multiplex.
After the wild success of Basic Instinct in 1992, Verhoeven’s next film, Showgirls, was greeted with outright hostility. Now he’s back with his most slippery prospect to date, a French-language production featuring a career-best performance by Isabelle Huppert. We sat down with the filmmaker to chat Elle, controversy, satire and the good ’ol US of A.
LWLies: Elle is adapted from a novel by Philippe Djian, but the screenwriter is David Birke, who’s best known for his serial killer movies, Gacy and Dahmer.
Verhoeven: I didn’t know that. I met him with regards to another project that I’m still trying to make with the former head of production at Fox, a film noir. I worked with him from the last draft, finalising the script, and although we never made that movie, I thought he was very talented. I didn’t know about his former career, I based everything on the work we did on this thriller, called Rogue. When I thought about turning Elle into an American movie, I immediately thought of him.
Did the screenplay go through many changes once you got your hands on it?
Not really. I mean, you always make small changes and refine things, if a scene is a bit too long or too short, but the first draft was 90 per cent of what the film is now.
Huppert’s Michèle is a video game designer…
Well, David Birke knows everything about video games! In the book, she’s the head of a company that produces scripts for television and film. I thought it wasn’t very visual to talk about screenplays on film, it’d be boring, just talk, talk, talk. The idea came from my daughter while we were having dinner, she said I should make her the head of a video game company. I didn’t know anything about video games at all, but David did. Video games work as a perfect metaphor for complicity in screen violence, you even have Michèle say about the game she’s developing, ‘When the player guts an Orc, he has to feel the blood on his hands.’ I don’t think I thought that much about it. I didn’t know anything about video games, my other daughter’s husband had to explain them to me. I just put the idea to David, and he said, ‘Great’. He knows the language. I didn’t think – perhaps he did – about complicity in violence, I just thought, ‘That’s visual’.Read the LWLies Recommends Elle review
The film also takes some hilarious swipes at social niceties and middle class pretensions.
A lot of that comes from David.
But with your American films seen as satires of American society, did you intend Elle as a skewering of the French middle class?
Nope. I mean, it turned out that way. The ironies in certain scenes came on the set, I think. I’d be lying if I said I foresaw that, or that I was really trying to do that. Perhaps I did, but that came from the book. Neither did I think when I was doing Starship Troopers that I was trying to express something very specific about American society. When we were working on that film, we were laughing all the time because of elements we picked from reality and made much bigger in the movie. It’s only in retrospect that I see we were fighting against the book by Robert Heinlein, which is pretty militaristic and proto-fascist. I disagreed with that, so we were trying to counter that in the irony of how these people are, what the news is and how the news is presented. It all happened in a very organic way, we didn’t sit down and say we’re going to make an ironic version of this book. We didn’t even talk about irony, we just invented scenes and found ourselves laughing all the time.
Didn’t you take specific shots from Triumph of the Will? That must have been meant ironically, no?
It was our way of countering Robert Heinlein by going further than him. These people are Nazis, so we gave them Nazi costumes and took shots from Leni Riefenstahl’s movies. We were saying, ‘These are our heroes, but they’re living in a fascist utopia.’ What comes out of making a movie can have more depth in retrospect than you really thought while you were doing it. There are, of course, elements in your brain that do these things while you’re not aware of it. You can read all these things into it afterwards, but it’s good that you’re not thinking about them while you’re doing it, otherwise you’re going to preach. Intrinsically it’s a commentary on American society, where everyone has a gun, but while we were making it, we weren’t thinking of it as a critical study of the United States, we were just laughing at our ideas.
Do you think Trump’s America has moved beyond satire, or is it more necessary than ever?
We don’t know if it’s Trump’s America. We hope it’s not. You couldn’t get a green-light on that movie today, certainly the way we made it. If you took all that stuff out, like they did with the remakes of RoboCop and Total Recall, you’d be taking out all the ambiguity, satire and irony. Straight, that’s what they want now. They think audiences are so stupid that they can’t handle another layer.
There were expectations of a lot of controversy over Elle after it played at Cannes, but that doesn’t seem to have materialised.
Everybody was warning me that it was going to be very controversial, but I’ve not noticed anything. Perhaps it’ll happen in the US, but there was no problem in Toronto or Cannes.
“At the time, there were reviews of the film that said they didn’t even watch the second half of the movie because they had to go to the toilet to throw up.”
There was a much greater outcry over the rape scenes in Basic Instinct and Hollow Man. Do you think that’s a question of context or the way you shot the scenes?
It could well be that this is more artistic. If you want to use that word. If we’d made this movie in the United States, it would have been very controversial. It would have been flatter, more direct, more banal. Here we get to add more layers, and an actress like Isabelle Huppert who really believes in the part. There’s a difference between artistic and just well made. I mean, I think Starship Troopers is artistic too. There’s no way we would have reached this level of authenticity or ‘art’ if we’d made Elle in the US.
When you were speaking in Cannes of the American actresses who wouldn’t take the part, you said they wouldn’t go near such an amoral script. But Elle isn’t really amoral, it’s not presented in moral terms.
I would express it more precisely in that they were offended by the third act. It’s really her going to start an affair with her rapist, going into a sadomasochistic relationship. That was unacceptable to American actresses who only wanted to see a third act about revenge. In the American version, the first two acts would have been the same, you wouldn’t have lost much there, but the moment she discovers who the rapist is, American cinema and philosophy dictates it would have to be a revenge movie. The film goes in a completely different direction, it’s really, ‘love your enemy.’
The tide is slowly turning on appraisals of one of our favourite films of yours. Why do you think it’s taken so long for people to realise that Showgirls is a fucking masterpiece?
I dunno, too many tits? To talk in the language of that movie, it’s tits and ass all the time. I think it was too much for everybody. It’s a very negative, cynical movie. Sex is money and money is sex. It was a completely negative statement. On top of that, you could see it as an attack, not just on Vegas, but on the US in general. Everything is about money. So it created an unpleasant feeling, and the abundance of nudity made people feel very uncomfortable. I remember when I was working on the Jesus seminar, half a year after Showgirls came out, two of the professors came to me and whispered, ‘We loved Showgirls!’ That was how people told me they liked it. It wasn’t like that with RoboCop, but that was less perverted.
Perhaps Jesus seminarians are the people that most need a little Showgirls in their life.
That may well be true. They were really looking around to make sure nobody heard them. At the time, there were reviews of the film that said they didn’t even watch the second half of the movie because they had to go to the toilet to throw up. Normal reviews were like that. The New York Times wrote, ‘This man will never understand the United States.’ Which you could say was xenophobic, perhaps. Or maybe I understand the United States better than they do.
Isabelle Huppert and Paul Verhoeven reunite to potent effect in this sly, caustic social critique.
By Nick Chen
From Showgirls to Starship Troopers, delve into the Dutch filmmaker’s provocative back catalogue.