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It may come as a surprise from the director who gave us next-level violence in RoboCop, made heroes of strippers (Showgirls) and sci-fi fascists (Starship Troopers) — from the man who gave us that shot of Sharon Stone crossing and uncrossing her legs in Basic Instinct — but Paul Verhoeven doesn’t mean to shock you.
“I’m never deliberately out to provoke — that’s not my intention,” Verhoeven tells THR. “The images just come to my mind. If I’m interested in seeing them, the audience will be too.”
For the most part, the audience has wanted to watch. Verhoeven followed up the crossover success of his early Dutch movies, among them the 1973 sexual romance Turkish Delight and 1977’s war epic Soldier of Orange, with a run of commercial hits — RoboCop, Total Recall, Basic Instinct — that defined an era in Hollywood cinema.
The critical backlash against Showgirls — winner of seven Razzies, including for worst picture, worst director and worst screenplay — together with the financial flop that was Hollow Man (2000) got the Dutch director blacklisted by the studios.
But deep into his sixth decade as a filmmaker, Verhoeven, 82, is enjoying a Philip Roth-style late-period renaissance. Critics and audiences have hailed his return to European cinema with such daring work as the Dutch war drama Black Book (2006) and the French thriller Elle (2016).
Verhoeven’s new film, premiering in competition in Cannes, is Benedetta, a true-life historic drama about a 17th century French nun who has erotic visions of Jesus and starts a love affair with a fellow sister. So no sign of controversy there, then.
“Actually, I don’t think the film will be scandalous — at least not in Western Europe,” says Verhoeven. “Maybe Americans will see it differently, though. There is more puritanism in the U.S. I saw that with Basic Instinct. And even more with Showgirls.”
But there are signs, even in America, that the culture is catching up with the subversive mind of Paul Verhoeven. RoboCop, Total Recall and Starship Troopers, controversial in their day, are now established sci-fi classics. Basic Instinct, condemned on release as homophobic for showing a bisexual woman — Stone’s femme fatale Catherine Tramell — as violent and amoral, is now embraced for Verhoeven’s pioneering depiction of a complex LGBTQ character. Even Showgirls has been reassessed as a camp classic, a journey chronicled in Jeffrey McHale’s 2019 documentary You Don’t Nomi.
Has the enfant terrible of Dutch cinema lost his capacity to shock? Elle, which premiered in Cannes, was warmly embraced by critics on both sides of the Atlantic. It even earned star Isabelle Huppert a long-overdue Oscar nomination. “I was a little bit amazed, actually, that Elle was not more scandalous,” Verhoeven admits. “It’s the story of a woman who is raped and then starts a relationship with her rapist. That’s not very American. But most critics liked it. Maybe it helped having it in French. The fact that [Benedetta] is in French might also give a distance to the sexuality, at least for American audiences.”
Whether Benedetta proves to be this year’s festival shocker, the film remains one of the most hotly anticipated titles in the Cannes competition. Starring Virginie Efira, Charlotte Rampling, Lambert Wilson and Daphne Patakia, the movie was set to premiere in Cannes last year before the festival was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic. Surprisingly, given its provocative premise — and its titillating poster art that features a nun in a white habit with an exposed breast — Benedetta is inspired by a work of scholarship. Verhoeven and Elle co-screenwriter David Birke based their script on Judith C. Brown’s Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy, a study of a 17th century trial by the Catholic Church of Sister Benedetta Carlini — played by Efira — a visionary abbess accused of the blasphemous and, for the time, nearly unthinkable “crime” of having a same-sex relationship with another nun (Belgium’s Patakia).
Rampling plays Felicita, an abbess whose power in the convent is challenged by Benedetta’s claims of spiritual visions (with accompanying stigmata wounds on her hands and feet). Wilson plays the Nuncio, a church emissary sent to prosecute Sister Benedetta. “The documents she, Judith Brown, uncovered, are really unique. They are the first written evidence of lesbianism in modern Western history, and it is so specific, so precise,” Verhoeven says. “ All the details of how and often they had sex, what exactly they did, how she, Benedetta, put her hand on her breast or her mouth or her vagina. It’s all in there. … It’s amazing to read this and to think it took the Catholic Church, the Western world, hundreds of years before we came to a situation where lesbianism or LGBTQ sexuality is seen as it really is — as a thing of nature.”
But it was the story of the sacred, as much as the sex, that appealed to Verhoeven. “That was the biggest challenge, actually, to express not just the sex but the spiritual, because it was very real for these women, very much a part of the world they lived in,” says the director. “I added this sacred level to the book, which is not in there.”
Another surprise for longtime Verhoeven fans: This cinema bad boy has a spiritual streak. “I have a very personal connection to Christianity,” says Verhoeven. “There was a period in my life, in my 20s, when I became very religious, I converted to the Pentecostal church. It was a time in my life I was looking for help. I had a girlfriend, and I had gotten her pregnant, and we didn’t want to keep the baby. I wanted to become a filmmaker, but I felt trapped. I couldn’t see any escape. And I turned to religion.”
Verhoeven speaks passionately, and without irony, of that time. “I felt the presence of Jesus in my heart. I mean literally — I physically felt it,” he says.
It didn’t last long. Verhoeven found a more profane solution to the crisis in his life — “A friend’s father, a doctor, helped us get a secret abortion, which was against the law in Holland at the time” — and, he says, “Faith slowly left me. I’m not a believer now.”
What stuck was a fascination with religion, particularly the life of Jesus, the subject of a 2008 book he co-authored (The Real Jesus of Nazareth) and that he has been working on with Pulp Fiction screenwriter Roger Avary, among others, to adapt for the screen. To hear Verhoeven describe it, his vision of Jesus sounds like an anti-Passion of the Christ. “Mel Gibson’s position on Jesus is so different from mine,” he says. “I see Jesus much more as a political person. He was a revolutionary. I really see parallels between Jesus and Che Guevara.”
In the U.S., at least, that film by Paul Verhoeven would still be a shocker.
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