Agent Provocateur: The Films of Paul Verhoeven

With the Robocop reboot about to kick down the doors, it’s time for a retrospective of Paul Verhoeven, the Dutch provocateur responsible for the original and a handful of other classics. “Classic” might seem a bit rich, but with poor cyborg Officer Murphy, Total RecallBasic InstinctStarship Troopers, and Showgirls, Verhoeven’s carved out his own gaudy niche of violence and eroticism. He’s certainly brought a bruise or two to the surface of popular culture. TIFF is taking a look at the breadth of his career in their new program Flesh + Blood: The Films of Paul Verhoeven, showing his early Dutch movies all the way through to his Hollywood home-runs. Join me after the jump for a pair of his earliest, the WWII epic Soldier of Orange and the medieval depravity of Flesh+Blood.

“Couldn’t we just take the Chunnel?” The lads of Soldier of Orange on a mission.

One of Verhoeven’s chief early collaborators was Rutger Hauer, best known as the chiseled Nordic android Roy Batty in Blade Runner. They worked together early on, first in television on the Robin Hood-like medieval TV series Floris, then on two of Verhoeven’s Dutch films of the seventies, the erotically charged offbeat dramas Turkish Delight and Katie TippelSoldier of Orange was the peak of that output, a big budget affair following six college friends and the paths their lives take on the outbreak of World War II. Released in 1977, the movie is based on the memoirs of Dutch war hero Erik Hazelhoff, and was partly backed by a friend of Hazelhoff’s, Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands. As the story unfolds, some of the friends collaborate, and some join the Resistance. It being war, none of it goes very well. Betrayals and fear seep through their civilized veneer. Verhoeven does a marvelous job with a large canvas, following the collegians’ initial bravura in the face of what will surely be a short-lived conflict, and then the harder edges that emerge as they suffer the prolonged Nazi occupation. Hauer strikes a delicate balance between principle and opportunism, joining the resistance but only acting the hero when no other course is left. He escapes to England to meet the exiled Dutch Queen Wilhelmina, and after some initial drama there, is told he must return to Holland in aid of the Resistance. His reluctant agreement sets in course the film’s final twists, putting himself in the jaws of a trap.

The libidinal excess of some of Verhoeven’s earlier works is tamped down here, though there’s romantic rivalry and he’s never above a crude joke or two (as in the goofy bit when Erik tries to stand in the Queen’s way, blocking her view of his friend’s amorous encounter before a window; the Queen is not amused). While it lacks the visceral punch of films like Saving Private Ryan or Schindler’s List, Verhoeven’s smooth command of his story certainly caught Hollywood’s eye. Combined with the later international success of his art house Hitchcockian thriller The Fourth Man (1983), Tinseltown decided to get into the Verhoeven business.

Love, Carolingian-style (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Rutger Hauer)

Flesh+Blood (1985) is Verhoeven’s first Hollywood effort, one where he returns to the Middle Ages with Rutger Hauer, but with a decidedly bloodier, grimier tale. Long before Game of Thrones, Verhoeven gives us an eye-opening look at the vicissitudes of medieval living. Mercenaries ransack a city for their king, only to be betrayed and cut down once the city is taken. Martin (Hauer) and his tight-knit band of plundering soldiers escape, their own priest in tow. A religious sign gives Martin the conviction his quest for revenge is a mission from God, and soon the company crosses paths with a virgin princess promised to the son of the king. Played by a young Jennifer Jason Leigh, Princess Agnes is both vulnerable and cunning. Kidnapped by the lusty band of mercenaries, she contrives to be raped by only Martin. Not comfortable viewing, that, but then the Dark Ages got its name for a reason. What follows is a surprisingly intricate dance. As the king and his son close in, Agnes and Martin find themselves developing a powerful erotic bond. Martin’s company dislikes the princess’s high-born ways, and feel Martin’s growing affection for Agnes pulls him away from their comradeship and divine purpose. For her part, the pull between her loyalty to her betrothed and her intense attraction to Martin festers in Agnes, and we’re never sure who she will choose from one moment to the next. The film’s uneven, but its tensions are fascinating; even the kick of its erotic encounters is complicated by power-plays and unruly emotion. Throw in bloody sword-play, gun-powder and the ever-looming spectre of the plague, and Flesh+Blood is both exhilarating and unpleasant, a vivid take on an awful time.

Soldier of Orange plays today, Friday, February 7th, at 9pm at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto. Flesh+Blood plays on Tuesday, February 25th at 8:45pm (and can be found on iTunes and a few international Netflixes, if you’re not in the Toronto area). For a full list of the films comprising the Verhoeven Flesh+Blood program, see here.

2 Replies to “Agent Provocateur: The Films of Paul Verhoeven”

    1. Me too! I’m thinking I might have to dedicate a piece to it when it’s coming up. Stay tuned! 🙂

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