George Nash assesses the cinematic output of the subversive Dutch provocateur Paul Verhoeven…
On the Rotten Tomatoes page of Showgirls, the critical consensus reads as follows: “Vile, contemptible, garish, and misogynistic — and that might just be exactly Showgirls‘ point”.
It’s about as perfect as any summation could hope to be in capturing the journey taken by Paul Verhoeven’s hugely divisive film about a small-town stripper with big, Vegas-size dreams in the quarter of a century since it first etched itself onto the retinas of cinemagoers the world over in 1995.
Met with a royal flush of critical and commercial failure upon release — a box office bomb, a barrage of bad reviews, 13 Razzie Award nominations (a record that still stands today) — Showgirls experienced something of a cultural renaissance in the years since: a revaluation of what Verhoeven and screenwriter Joe Eszterhas may, or may not, have been trying to say about Hollywood, men in positions of power, and the modern American dream.
For those familiar with the Dutch director’s filmography — 16 movies across 50 years — the legacy of Showgirls is perhaps indicative of Verhoeven’s entire body of work: films that might, on the surface, appear excessive, vacuous and objectifying, but, upon closer inspection, or with the gift of hindsight, might just operate within far more slippery, satirical, and altogether more intriguing circles.
With Showgirls celebrating its 25th anniversary this month, and with a 17th film, Benedetta, on the horizon, we ranked the films of Paul Verhoeven, from worst to best:
16. Hollow Man (2000)
What should have been the film to bring down the curtain on Verhoeven’s 13-year fling with Hollywood with a bang instead came and went without so much as a whimper. While its visual effects were worthy enough to catch the eye of the Academy, Hollow Man’s turn of the millennium tale that aimed to bring H.G. Wells’s ‘The Invisible Man’ into the 21st century turned out to be just as the title suggested: vapid, shallow and severely lacking any real substance.
Sitting awkwardly somewhere between by-the-book slasher and unsettling relationship drama, the narrative — that sees Kevin Bacon’s narcissistic genius turn himself invisible before going on a bloody, vengeful rampage — blends usual Verhoeven staples of violence and leering voyeurism, but contains none of the same searing satire.
Just as Leigh Whannell did with his impressively incisive take on Wells’ classic story two decades later, Verhoeven’s film could have been an intriguing comment on abuse, workplace perils and toxic masculinity. Instead, it unravels as perhaps his most unremarkable, mean-spirited movie to date.
15. Flesh+Blood (1985)
Showgirls. RoboCop. Hollow Man. For all their divisiveness and often slippery sentiment, the titles of Paul Verhoeven’s films are rarely ambiguous. His first English language feature, Flesh+Blood, is perhaps the most straightforward of the lot: A romantic adventure film set during the early modern period that has, you guessed it, a lot of flesh and a lot of blood.
But, for all its sex and violence, for all its staple Verhoeven-isms, this is a film that falls disappointingly flat. Starring a young Jennifer Jason Leigh alongside Tom Burlinson and the late, great Rutger Hauer (a rift between Verhoeven and Hauer over his character would end their longstanding partnership), the story plays out a love triangle against the backdrop of war and disease. In a rare instance of the director also nabbing a writing credit (one of only four times so far in his career), Verhoeven’s film dabbles in some intriguing ideas around class divide, moral ambivalence and Stockholm Syndrome. Ultimately, it is a convoluted mess that lacks any real focus.
14. Keetje Tippel (1975)
Despite boasting what was, at the time, the largest budget in Dutch cinema history, Keetje Tippel is a largely unremarkable affair. Its study of class friction and sexual politics, while initially potent, becomes messily weaved throughout the tale of an ambitious young woman (early Verhoeven regular Monique van de Ven) hoping to escape a dysfunctional family life life and break free of her poor, working class beginnings.
In hindsight, the film is the product of a time when Verhoeven was still very much honing his own unique style: a feeling best exemplified by its most prominent theme, the search for identity, being far better explored in several of his later films.
13. Tricked (2012)
If Verhoeven’s experimental project of 2012 is fascinating in theory — an ambitious ‘user-generated’ film where the narrative is driven primarily by audience participation, in the form of snippets from hundreds of unsolicited scripts — in practice, it proves far less enticing.
The overall story seems Verhoeven enough, a family-centered tale with backstabbing, melodrama and deviance all thrown into the mix. But, at less than 60-minutes in length, it’s one that feels under-cooked, while its broad-stroke characters lack any meaningful development or nuance. And, unsurprisingly, this is a story that jolts wildly in tone, from grounded relationship drama to more laughably implausible sub plots involving corporate blackmail and deceit.
Still, Tricked represents the work of a director who has constantly thrown himself into the unknown; a filmmaker motivated by the challenge and who willingly embraces the uncertainty of it all. If nothing else, this is a movie that aptly embodies its maker’s consistently bold approach to cinema.
12. Soldier of Orange (1977)
One would think that a film set during WWII, a time that resonates on a particularly personal level for its director (Verhoeven was born in 1938), might, over time, become his most accomplished, revered work. It is perhaps telling of Soldier of Orange‘s legacy then that Paul Verhoeven’s most acclaimed movies are set in distant futures and take place millions of light years away. Not that there is anything drastically wrong in his 1977 wartime coming-of-age drama about a group of students headed up by Rutger Hauer, but there’s little about it that feels truly memorable, either.
Its themes of collaboration and resistance would be better served three decades later in Black Book, while its novelistic structure, while admirable, leaves the film uneven and overly long. Still, Soldier of Orange is not without a few solid touches, and, for those with a vested interest in delving a little deeper into pre-Hollywood Verhoeven, it is certainly worth a go.
11. The Fourth Man (1983)
It is little coincidence that the gig that effectively landed Verhoeven a plane ticket to Hollywood would lay the blueprint for a film like Basic Instinct. Conflating fear and fantasy, death and desire, The Fourth Man follows a sleazy, troubled novelist (Jeroen Krabbé) plagued by cryptic, sinister premonitions after becoming infatuated with a blond femme fatale (Renée Soutendijk).
While the religious iconography feels a tad heavy-handed and the arachnid imagery a little too on the nose, the film is saved by the increasingly unhinged central performance from Krabbé, the dark humour and the deliberately nauseating, Argento-style surrealist horror sequences that, among others, includes an eyeball popping out of a door frame.
10. Spetters (1980)
Like the age-old bus analogy, in the short space of time between 1978 and 1980, two films joined the then-relatively small list of ‘greaser’ movies: coming-of-age tales about sexually charged, leather-clad adolescents from working class backgrounds with dirt under their fingernails and oil in their hair. One was Randal Kleiser’s Grease, the other was Paul Verhoeven’s Spetters.
In many ways, the latter, Verhoeven’s fifth feature film, plays like Holland’s answer to the former, with an early scene in a nightclub even containing the line “wow, here’s the new Dutch John Travolta!” while the walls of one character’s bedroom are plastered in posters of the Grease star.
Both films dabble in similar explorations of masculinity through vehicular racing; both, for a time at least, celebrate the joyous recklessness of youth. But, while Kleiser’s definitive movie musical has sexual innuendo that is never more explicit than the odd questionable song lyric, Spetters goes full frontal, with nudity and soft-core sex scenes in abundance. Grease has its characters cleaning cars, dancing on bleachers and reminiscing about summer nights. Spetters has a sequence that sees its three male protagonists compare penis sizes in full view.
Verhoeven’s film is also notably gloomier in its worldview. Despite beginning by basking in the boys’ juvenile frolicking, there’re no colourful carnivals or toe-tapping musical numbers awaiting their transition into adulthood, only crippling catastrophe in the form of sexual violence, shattered dreams, and suicide.
Its propensity to shock occasionally takes the story into abhorrent territory, most notably in its controversial handling of homosexuality. But its grittier, dirtier take on a what is a largely predictable formula renders Spetters an altogether more unconventional watch. For better or worse.
9. Business Is Business (1971)
For all the subtext that permeates much of his later work, Verhoeven’s debut feature film is surprisingly simple. Following the life and work of two Amsterdam prostitutes, Business Is Business rarely delves into anything that might be considered emotional complexity or intriguing social comment, but its unwavering anti-moralising attitude to sex work elevates it beyond mere trashy, comic hijinks.
It is, at times, a little crude, and a sub-plot involving vicious domestic abuse is played as little more than a side note. Yet, crucially, Verhoeven’s quaint dramedy presents its female protagonists as dedicated, durable, and resolutely confident. Its men, on the other hand, consistently make fools of themselves — namely, the one bloke whose deepest, darkest sexual desire is to cover himself in feathers and parade around pretending to be a chicken.
8. Basic Instinct (1992)
Blurring the boundaries between sex and violence. Regressive, reductive depictions of lesbianism. Troubling crotch shots. Michael Douglas’s V-neck sweater. Nearly three decades on, there’s still a multitude of reasons to dislike Basic Instinct.
And difficult though it might be to frame Verhoeven’s erotic thriller as anything more than trashy soft-core pornography, like Showgirls, that might entirely be the point.
Sharon Stone’s star-making turn as the enigmatic crime writer Catherine Tramell certainly anchors the broad, warped feminist strokes that permeate Verhoeven’s film — Tramell, for instance, writes under the pseudonym ‘Catherine Woolf’ — but it’s important to remember that Basic Instinct is essentially told from the perspective of Douglas’s troubled detective, Nick Curran.
As such, the film’s explicitness, coupled with highly stylised mise-en-scène, feels increasingly like a satire of male fantasy, whereby Curran, a largely detestable protagonist absorbed by his own reckless, toxic masculinity and disillusioned sexual power, has entirely convinced himself that sleeping with the enemy, in a most literal sense, is the most efficient way to solve the murder mystery at the heart of the narrative.
In the end, the only thing Nick really exposes is his own inflated sense of self-importance, and, for Verhoeven and screenwriter Joe Eszterhas, the utter ridiculousness of male desire.
7. Black Book (2006)
Swapping Hollywood for Holland in 2006, Verhoeven’s much-awaited return to Dutch-language cinema after a 23-year absence, rather fittingly, contains all the very best and the all the very worst of the director’s body of work.
A WWII epic that frames its narrative around a central female hero (a striking performance from Carice van Houten), Black Book offers an intriguing avenue into the horrors of Nazism and Dutch Resistance, while its tale of moral ambiguity and relativism also harbours something of a rarity in the Verhoeven-verse: an emotional core.
And compared to something like Soldier of Orange, it’s a breezy 2.5 hours: a fast-paced war time adventure that cuts an impressively lean narrative figure. Yet, despite its kinetic tempo, Black Book can never truly abstain from indulging in the trademark nudity, violence, melodrama and borderline exploitation that, for better or worse, have made Verhoeven a household name.
6. Turkish Delight (1973)
The first of Hauer’s five collaborations with Verhoeven over a 12 year period — more than a quarter of the Dutch filmmaker’s output to date — Turkish Delight feels at once entirely befitting and completely at odds with his early work.
The sexually explicit hallmarks are all there, but, from its jolting, violent opening (which later turns out to be a hangover fantasy), this quaint romantic dramedy, like his big-budget output years later, immediately works to dislodge its audience. The timeline jumps about at will, while the tone darts suddenly between jovial comedy to touching relationship drama.
It is also perhaps the most nuanced expression of romance Verhoeven has ever shown on screen, in which a late-twenties Hauer — playing a slippery hero who moves between bohemian sculptor and shameless lothario — stars alongside Monique van de Ven as an oddball couple who go through a turbulent time of it during an on/off relationship over a number of years.
Rude, crude, playful, yet occasionally moving, it remains an intriguing outlier in Verhoeven’s formative body of work.
5. Showgirls (1995)
Perhaps the most maligned, but equally the most misunderstood of all Verhoeven’s movies, drop Showgirls in a room filled with film critics and watch the fists fly.
The critical reaction, and indeed re-reaction to Showgirls over the last 25 years perhaps best embodies the polarising attitudes towards Verhoeven’s work more widely. The film about a small town girl seduced by the neon lure of Las Vegas, like so many of Verhoeven’s films, cannot so easily be packaged into a box and tied neatly with a critical bow.
Instead, Showgirls is a film of conflation. It regularly plays to a plethora of genres and conventions, while eluding conclusive categorisation altogether. It’s often excessive, hammy and hilarious yet is also gritty, unsettling and haunting. It contains bold, meaningful comment while also indulging shamelessly in titillating trash. And, as much as you’re compelled to avert your eyes in disgust, it’s almost impossible to truly turn away.
In the absence of understanding, we, as human beings, often revert to fear and distrust. In that sense, Showgirls might just be one of the most terrifying movies of the last 30 years. As Jamie Kennedy’s loveable movie buff Randy Meeks remarks in Scream 2 when asked for his favourite scary movie; “Showgirls — absolutely frightening”. Frightening, indeed. In every sense of the word.
4. Elle (2016)
In many ways, Elle is Verhoeven in a more contemplative mood. Unrestricted by the shackles of American studio input, the film, an adaptation of a 2012 Philippe Djian novel, takes a fairly straightforward revenge story and imbues it with slow burning, complex ideas around family and victimhood, while making a conscious effort to develop its characters beyond their ties to the central narrative.
Elevated by a compelling screen performance by the ever-magnetic Isabelle Huppert — a performance that earned her an Oscar nomination — Verhoeven’s film is disturbing, provocative and constantly engrossing. Even after 45 years, the controversial director proves he still has a few surprises up his sleeve.
3. Total Recall (1990)
At the time of writing, the YouTube viewing numbers for a video of the ‘160 Greatest Arnold Schwarzenegger Quotes’ sit somewhere in the region of 28 million. It hardly seems coincidence that many, many of those 160 classic Arnie quotes come from Total Recall.
Such is the legacy of the 1990 adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s wonderfully titled short story ‘We Can Remember It For You Wholesale’, in which Schwarzenegger’s Douglas Quaid bumps off government goons on Mars while spouting deliriously corny one-liners as he searches for who he really is.
But more than the aural immortality of lines like “screw you!”, “see you at the party, Richter” and “consider that a divorce” (in Arnie’s distinctive Austrian-American twang, pronounced “divor-ass,” of course), Total Recall is a slick, inventive action movie with bold ideas to boot. Under the guise of wobbly science fiction, Verhoeven’s film nimbly slips in ideas around totalitarianism and capitalism while never scrimping on the cartoonish violence, the creepy automated cab drivers and the occasional three-breasted mutant call girl.
2. Starship Troopers (1997)
Is this a searing satire of fascism, right-wing militarism, and hyper-jingoistic foreign policy that’s actually just a big-budget B-movie about large, extra-terrestrial bugs that shoot acid and eat human brains? Or is it the other way round?
Is the one-note script and comically-wooden acting the product of poor writing/casting, or is it entirely befitting the film’s themes of uniformity and conformity?
Is the gratuitous nudity and extreme violence on show purely to serve the purposes of outrage, controversy and notoriety, or is it, in fact, Verhoeven offering meaningful comment on the hypocrisy of modern America?
As with the majority of Verhoeven’s Hollywood back catalogue, the debate over what kind of movie Starship Troopers is rages on. Friday night popcorn fare or cutting subversion of the great American military movie, like the antagonistic arachnids that constantly thwart the efforts of the implausibly attractive set of spunky teens at the centre of this 1997 sci-fi romp, Verhoeven’s 12th feature film is as slippery, as underrated, and, crucially, as misunderstood as they come.
Upon release, it was detested. A brash, excessive display of colonialism, patriotism and propaganda — a tactic used to such wonderfully comic effect in RoboCop ten years prior — that Starship Troopers dared to highlight the ridiculousness of such ideas meant it was met with scorn. That it also boldly flipped the military hero archetype on its head and, in doing so, questioned the very notion of traditional heroism, Verhoeven was lambasted.
Over two decades later, the film might just be his definitive satirical masterstroke.
1. RoboCop (1987)
RoboCop, in keeping with the colloquialisms of contemporary society, is peak Verhoeven. It is quite possibly the Dutch director at his most seamless, blending genre thrills and entertaining action fare with layered, compelling examinations of society’s most troubling characteristics, all dowsed generously in the signature satire that would come to define his Hollywood career.
With RoboCop, much like Starship Troopers a decade later, Verhoeven, with screenwriters Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner, hits that rare, if unsettling, thematic sweet spot, nimbly ensnaring its audience uncomfortably between pleasure and guilt; lodging the viewer on the border between innocence and culpability.
In the years since, the backdrop of RoboCop‘s supposedly dystopian future — one of corruption, capitalism, rapid technological advances, fierce media influence, and a militarised police force — has become an increasingly important, and alarmingly accurate vision of the 21st century.
In short, it’s striking just how much of what in 1987 was considered the work of science fiction is, in today’s world, increasingly becoming fact.
George Nash is a freelance film journalist. Follow him on Twitter via @_Whatsthemotive for movie musings, puns and cereal chatter.