Paul Verhoeven’s Elle has been described as a rape-comedy. This may be catchy but it’s inaccurate; there is comedy in the film, mostly thanks to Isabelle Huppert’s sarky way with a one-liner as a Parisian career woman who doesn’t react in the way you’d expect to being violated on the floor of her dining-room by a masked intruder. But the rape scenes (and there are more than one) are not played for laughs. Nor, thank God, are they even remotely erotic.
Elle, in fact, is singularly lacking in eroticism, which might seem odd coming from the director of Basic Instinct, the ne plus ultra of the “erotic thriller”, in which Sharon Stone incarnates a new model 1990s femme fatale, dominating a roomful of sweaty gobsmacked cops by flashing her “magna cum laude pussy” at them and generally keeping everyone guessing as to whether or not she gets her kicks from sticking icepicks into people’s jugulars.
Verhoeven’s fearless approach to sex can be thrilling in itself, and offers a bracing contrast to Hollywood’s usual softcore prurience, but erotic? A typical Basic Instinct sex scene consists of rogue cop Michael Douglas mashing sexy therapist Jeanne Tripplehorn against a wall, ripping off her knickers (maybe this is why Stone doesn’t bother to wear any) and throwing her headfirst on to the sofa so he can take her from behind while showing us his bottom. It’s consensual, I think, but hardly erotic, especially where Douglas’s bottom is concerned.
But Verhoeven has never been coy on the sexual front. His first big hit was Turkish Delight (1973), a sort of full-frontal Love Story which was nominated for an Oscar. Inevitably, in the UK it was retitled The Sensualist, marketed as smut, and deemed “repulsive and meaningless” by Monthly Film Bulletin – a harbinger of the mass discombobulation with which each new Verhoeven film is greeted by Anglo-Saxon critics, who whimper about the surfeit of nipples and can never quite work out if they’re being taken for a ride.
And sometimes they are: Verhoeven admitted he deliberately frontloaded his 1983 film The Fourth Man with OTT religious and psychosexual symbolism as bait for critics who had dismissed his earlier work as shallow and sensationalist. Renée Soutendijk, sexy owner of the Sphinx Beauty Parlour, washes Jeroen Krabbé’s hair with Delilah shampoo before – yes! – cutting it. Sountendijk is the template for the Verhoeven anti-heroine – the preposterously upfront vamp who knows what she wants and knows how to get it, usually via some form of symbolic castration of the hapless hero.
But the thing you have to remember about Verhoeven is that he’s Dutch. And the Dutch, unlike British and Americans, are famously direct about sex. Compulsory sex education in the Netherlands begins at the age of four (and pays off, to judge by a teen pregnancy rate five times lower than those of the UK or the US). It may be healthy as social policy, but doesn’t leave a lot of room for things like mystery or anticipation. While there’s no shortage of sex and nudity in Verhoeven’s filmography, eroticism is never on the menu.
Robocop is probably the only film of his that doesn’t feature nudity, though he manages to squeeze it into other sci-fi movies: Total Recall (a three-breasted hooker!), Starship Troopers (a unisex communal shower scene!) and The Hollow Man (watch Kevin Bacon’s penis vanish as he becomes invisible!). But if you feel like wallowing in nakedness, Verhoeven-style, look no further than Showgirls, in which the heroine’s main aim in life is to emerge topless from an imitation volcano.
Showgirls is awash with sex and nudity and Las Vegas dancers in G-strings and dialogue like “lemme see your tits” and “I like nice tits” and “I like having nice tits”. As chocks-away hen party entertainment it has no equal, but rarely have so many breasts been bared to so little erotic effect. As always, Verhoeven is more interested in the strip than the tease.
This article was first published in The Amorist in April 1917.