Paul Verhoeven’s cinema, full of love and violence

30 years after the opening of the 1992 Cannes Film Festival with its famous Basic Instinct, Dutch director Paul Verhoeven unveils his new film Benedetta, with Virginie Efira, presented in competition at the Croisette this Friday, July 9. At 82 years old, the man nicknamed the “violent Dutchman” has lost nothing of his provocative side, as evidenced by his screenplay inspired by Judith C. Brown’s book, Benedetta, between saint and lesbian : the film traces the true story of the trial of Benedetta Carlini, a 17th century Italian nun torn between her romantic relationship and her love for God, played by Virginie Efira.

From his first films in the Netherlands to his successes in Hollywood, all of Verhoeven’s filmography is crossed by the themes of sex, violence and religion and Benedetta is obviously no exception to the rule. A look back at the career of this subversive filmmaker.

Between the Netherlands and the United States, his heart swings

With a doctorate in mathematics and physics, Verhoeven developed a passion for cinema in parallel with his studies. From the start of the 1970s, the filmmaker started making his first films in his native Holland and quickly achieved major successes with Turkish Délices, which, despite its provocative and erotic character, won an Oscar nomination for best foreign film.

Verhoeven then continued his career in the Netherlands by directing several feature films, including the sulphurous splashes. The film, set in the motocross world and very controversial for its scene of very raw homosexual gang rape, is considered too violent and decadent by the Dutch government. Becoming more and more difficult for the filmmaker to find funding, he decides to leave the Netherlands for the United States where, ironically, he will have to face the same criticisms for his future blockbusters (Total Recall, RoboCop…). Verhoeven did not return to shoot in his native country until the mid-2000s for his historic film Black Book.

An offbeat vision of history

It was during his military service in the audiovisual department of the Dutch Navy that the young Paul Verhoeven was introduced to cinema by making propaganda documentaries for the army of his country. It was not until 1977 that his historic films were successful internationally with The Choice of Fate, nominated for the Golden Globe for best foreign language film. Inspired by the memories of Erik Hazelhoff Roelfzema, the film traces the journey of this Dutch writer who became a Royal Air Force pilot during World War II.

Jennifer Jason Leigh and Rutger Hauer in “The Flesh and the Blood”, 1985. (ARCHIVES OF THE 7TH ART)

In 1975, Verhoeven persevered in the historical genre. He writes and directs his first feature film shot outside his country: Flesh and Blood. In this medieval epic, Verhoeven returns to his favorite themes and offers a painting of the barbaric, violent and sensual Middle Ages. He has fun hijacking all the clichés of the genre by making villains the heroes of the film or by defusing the romance between Steven and Agnès: their oath of love takes place at the foot of a tree where two hanged men are rotting . This pivotal film between his departure from Europe and his future career in the United States also marks the end of his friendship with his favorite actor Rutger Hauer, due to a scene of rape in the film that Hauer considers destructive for his career.

In the 2000s, when he returned to the Netherlands after 22 years in the United States, Verhoeven reconnected with his screenwriter friend Gerard Soeteman and directed Black Book. This film inspired by real events traces the journey of a young Jewish woman spy for the Dutch resistance at the end of World War II. With a budget of 18 million euros, Black Book is the most expensive film in the history of Dutch cinema.

Hollywood et science-fiction

On the advice of Steven Spielberg, who will help him integrate into the Hollywood world, Paul Verhoeven makes his entry into American cinema with two science fiction blockbusters: RoboCop, in 1987, then Total Recall with Arnold Schwarzenegger, who will be very successful. If the Dutch filmmaker explores the genre of science fiction for the first time, he manages to adapt to Hollywood without renouncing his subversive and provocative style.

So with RoboCop, Total Recall and Basic Instinct, Verhoeven realizes what he calls his “psychotic trilogy”. These three films each explore the theme of the double in their own way: RoboCop’s half-man, half-robot policeman, Total Recall’s double agent with amnesia and the crime writer suspected of murder.

American actor Peter Weller on the set of

American actor Peter Weller on the set of “RoboCop”, directed by Paul Verhoeven. (SUNSET BOULEVARD / CORBIS HISTORICAL)

Verhoeven brings his personal touch to these films while having fun combining traditional formulas of action and science fiction films, in particular thanks to the use of special effects to make the whole thing violent.

“The Violent Dutchman”

As a child, Paul Verhoeven grew up in an Amsterdam occupied by the Germans in the midst of World War II. Deeply marked by the scenes of extreme violence that he observed daily at a very young age, Verhoeven quickly sought to illustrate this excessive violence in his films, which he sometimes took to ridiculous levels.

When a bullet hits a character, it causes explosions of bright red blood. In battles, nothing is spared the spectator: limbs are torn off, innocent civilians are killed … The brutality is so extreme that it almost becomes a joke, turning the narrative into a satire of the traditional American action film and in analysis of the US fascination with violence.

Dean Morris in

Dean Morris dance “Total recall” de Paul Verhoeven, sorti en 1990. (CAROLCO PICTURES / CAROLCO INTER / COLLECTION CHRISTOPHEL VIA AFP)

But like the young Paul Verhoeven spectator of the horrors of war, each of his characters seems to stand out from the violence that unfolds around him. These films depict a world totally desensitized to violence, just like Verhoeven who at the age of 5 remained insensitive to the carnage he witnessed.

Verhoeven and women

The domineering woman rules in Verhoeven’s cinema: Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct or Isabelle Huppert in It, embody his female characters often staged in tragic and violent situations such as the many recurring rape scenes in his films.

Demonstration against the film screening ban

Demonstration against the prohibition of the screening of the film “Basic Instinct” by Paul Verhoeven scheduled at the Big Screen, city cinema Les Herbiers in June 1992. (ALAIN LE BOT / GAMMA-RAPHO)

When leaving Basic Instinct, in 1992, the film created controversy in particular within feminist and homosexual leagues for its explicit sex scenes and the sequence where Sharon Stone uncrosses her legs, naked under her skirt. If this is a film that allowed Sharon Stone to take her first steps towards stardom, the actress nonetheless said “being tricked by the director”, who would have promised him that nothing would appear on the screen.


In “Basic instinct”, released in 1992, Michael Douglas and Sharon Stone. (CAROLCO PICTURES / COLLECTION CHRISTOPHEL VIA AFP)

This voyeuristic side, involved by the camera is totally admitted by Verhoeven who does not hesitate to push it to the extreme in Showgirls, a film about the journey of a young woman who goes to Las Vegas in the hope of a career in the world of lap dance. The film was a bitter failure and “won” the award for worst film at the 1996 Razzie Award.

This time, it is with the strong female character of Benedetta that Paul Verhoeven marks his return to Cannes in 2021. True to himself, the Dutch director addresses in his new film the themes of sex, violence and religion, which he considers to be “the three main elements on earth”. With Benedetta, Verhoeven intends to shake up the Croisette and show that despite the years, he has not lost his biting and provocative side.

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