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NZIFF closing-night film: "It sounds like a high-wire walk over a pit full of rabid dogs"

NZIFF closing-night film: It sounds like a high-wire walk over a pit full of rabid dogs

Jul 8, 2016 Film & TV

Right on schedule, just as winter starts to pall, the Film Festival beckons. We preview the acclaimed Paul Verhoeven movie chosen for this year’s closing-night showcase. 

When Paul Verhoeven was a boy in the Netherlands, the occupying German forces used to launch V2 rocket attacks on London from a base close to his house. “Really gigantic,” he told the AV Club in 2007, shortly before the American release of his World War II film Black Book. “I remember the fire coming out of the end of the rocket, and this enormous sound. And sometimes when the rockets misfired, you saw them basically stopping, and then they would fall down on the city…”

The fire coming out of them. The enormous sound. The occasional calamitous misfire. I was trying to think of a metaphor large and crazy enough to capture Verhoeven’s body of work, and then it occurred to me that the place to look was probably Verhoeven’s own public statements. Sure enough.

Robocop. Remember Robocop? “A deliberate sick-sleazo comic-book style,” said the New Yorker’s Pauline Kael. Yep. The film is quite startling.

Verhoeven had been working for over 20 years by then, but he had been working in the Dutch film industry. He moved to America in search of a larger canvas — bigger budgets, bigger audiences. Bigger bodies! No one besides James Cameron has ever deployed Arnold Schwarzenegger as well as Verhoeven did in Total Recall, a film with melting faces, unstable memories, a triple-breasted prostitute, and, obviously, brutal violence. It was released in 1990, but it’s such an 80s film. I went to it three times.

Here is the definitive Verhoeven image. A man and a woman are naked in bed. She is Jewish. He is a Nazi. He has a gun. He’s pressing it into her breast. They want each other. All the exploitation flick qualities you can imagine, and Verhoeven leans into them hard: anyone who says he transcends trashiness has confused “transcends” with “embraces”. But the scene, which occurs in Black Book, is magnificent. Verhoeven has taken the time to build up both characters and give them a twisty relationship that makes sense and feels urgent.

There are lots of reasons the recent remakes of Robocop and Total Recall went nowhere, but the fundamental one is that the Verhoeven mix of schlock and intelligence is a sensibility, not an easy-to-replicate formula.

It sounds like a high-wire walk over a pit full of rabid dogs. It sounds remarkable.

Not even for Verhoeven. By all means let’s talk about Showgirls. But first let’s talk about Elle, the closing-night feature at this year’s Film Festival. It’s Verhoeven’s first feature in a decade. “It’s not a rape comedy at all,” he told the Guardian. Do you feel reassured? The film opens with a professional woman raped by a masked intruder in her own home. It then proceeds to go places no film has ever dared — or been crazy enough? — to go. Plot twist by plot twist, the woman carves out a response to the rape which is by all accounts utterly unpredictable, darkly funny, and powerful.

“Elle” means “she” in French, and it also means “her”, and it also means “it”. Woman as subject, woman as object, and the female inanimate: you could believe Verhoeven chose to make this his first French-language film purely for the ambiguities of the language. The truth is that he was set to make it in English, but the American actresses he had in mind all took one look at the screenplay and slammed the door hard. “Usually, you give it to the agents, you wait a few weeks.

This was immediate or within 48 hours. An absolute no.” He thought of Isabelle Huppert. A good thought. Her performance, and the film, took Cannes by storm.

It’s 20-odd years since Verhoeven made Showgirls, which is lurid and silly, and Basic Instinct, which is an ugly trudge. Both films were written by Joe Eszterhas. It’s instructive and worrying that Verhoeven could mistake either for a female empowerment story, but if you take a long look at Eszterhas’ other work, it becomes pretty clear that he’s where the leering nastiness came from.

I do not promise that Elle will not be enraging. I haven’t seen it yet. But reading the many enthusiastic reviews, it does not sound either leering or nasty.

It sounds like a high-wire walk over a pit full of rabid dogs. It sounds remarkable. The Film Festival has used its big showcase nights to highlight some gloriously out-there cinema in recent years: The Lobster, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Holy Motors, Wild Tales. These are indelible, singular films. I think we may look back on this year’s closing night and say that Elle fits right in.

Metro is a proud sponsor of NZIFF and the presenting sponsor of closing-night showcase, Elle, on July 31. For festival programme details, see nziff.co.nz 

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