Flesh and Emptiness: or, 42 Ways of Looking at Paul Verhoeven

RoboCop | MGM

1. All of Paul Verhoeven’s movies are wildly different from each other.

2. His Dutch films have a more artistic, impressionistic temperament than the genre films he made in America, and even those are distinguished by the genres they embody and subvert, whether thriller (Basic Instinct), science fiction (RoboCop, Starship Troopers), or a composite of both (Hollow Man, Showgirls).

3. But throughout his body of work, superficial images and ideas do repeat and rhyme with each other, recurring in different, increasingly clarified forms. RoboCop and Starship Troopers use commercials as narrative engines. In both Turkish Delight and Showgirls, champagne is poured onto and then consumed off of someone’s breasts. The main characters of Elle and Turkish Delight both find themselves, in a rare moment of isolation, taking care of birds.

4. Then there are his films that explicitly call out to each other, that seem to compliment and even complete each other, as Soldier of Orange (1977) and Black Book (2006) describe the Polish resistance in World War II from alternate but congruent angles. His American thriller, Basic Instinct, is a feature-length echo of an earlier Dutch film, The Fourth Man, both Hitchcockian arcs of anxiety that take place in the vivid and rapidly unraveling realities of unstable men; Sharon Stone’s hair in Basic Instinct’s police interrogation scene looks like a deliberate reconstruction of Renee Soutendijk’s hairstyle in The Fourth Man, which is scraped back into a severe, androgynous polygon.

5. In other words, his movies talk to each other through time.

6. In other words, all of Paul Verhoeven’s movies are the same.

7. Who am I? Who was I? Who were you? Whose ass got to Mars? What does it mean to have experienced trauma and remained myself? Who are the real fascists? How much blood is in the human body? Can there be more? Does it stutter and spray and explode from one’s flesh in long fluid arcs when it’s pierced?

8. Paul Verhoeven loves violence. It is the primary texture of all of his American films except Showgirls, bodies consumed and deconstructed, mere husks for an inner tide of gore. Verhoeven was instructed by the MPAA to reduce the violence in his 1990 film Total Recall; the film in its final edit is still almost balletically violent in the way its principal actor Arnold Schwarzenegger dispatches his enemies—their bodies convulse and splinter and are effortlessly reshaped. “I accept violence on a much higher level than other people do,” Verhoeven said in an interview about the film. “For me it’s just another way of showing things, my dreams or my nightmares or whatever that I give to the audience.”

9. My favorite thing about Paul Verhoeven interviews is the velocity with which he speaks. He wants to say the words at a faster rate than he can access them. This ecstatic tempo also flows into his direction. On the Starship Troopers set, he inspired the performances of Casper Van Dien and Denise Richards by embodying a CGI bug, his limbs whirling while he made a kind of shapeless, creaturely noise.

10. One of the reasons they chose Schwarzenegger for the main role in Total Recall is that his body successfully implied a dual nature from the start of the movie; his thick muscular construction is a form of dissonance in the frame’s composition, and it disturbs the symmetry of his domestic arrangement with Sharon Stone. There’s comparatively little to no dissonance when he disarms and kills his former coworkers, nor is it disruptive for him to later use a corpse as a human shield, skin and fabric and blood rippling with every percussive volley of gunfire. For Verhoeven the body is mostly a vehicle for an idea. If a body does not contain an idea, it is dead, a sculpture of meat.

11. “I often say that he is a visceralist, not a visualist,” RoboCop and Starship Troopers screenwriter Edward Neumeier says. “Kubrick’s a visualist. He’s very cold and concise. He wants you to see it and study it. Paul wants you to be reacting like, ‘Shit, the next one might hit me!’”

12. When I was a kid, the scene in 1987’s RoboCop that haunted me most is when one of the villains drives into a tank of toxic waste. He emerges from the wreck half-melted and screaming, and then is completely shattered into a blood salad by the impact of a car.

13. As often as he films them in stages of total annihilation, Paul Verhoeven loves bodies, their easy disassembly but also their integrity, the ways in which they can be manipulated and in which they can manipulate others. He loves sex. He loves nudity, both male and female. His 1983 Dutch film, The Fourth Man, is his most bisexual movie; the camera moves over the body of Thom Hoffman, posing as a statue of a speedo-clad Jesus Christ, with the same sensuous drift as it does the body of Renee Soutendijk. When she has sex with Jeroen Krabbé, the camera films them indirectly, through two mirrors located on the other side of the room. As the camera drifts, their dual image is slowly reduced to a single reflection.

14. Mirrors are everywhere. They recur and refract and place distortions throughout Verhoeven’s films. The mirror itself contains an internal rhyme, an image repeated from an unusual or even uncanny angle; whenever a mirror reflects the action from the ceiling, which is often, it acts as an imposing, omniscient lens. Sex almost exclusively transpires in mirrors; the orgasmic murder that opens Basic Instinct takes place in a ceiling mirror, and the credits that precede it are built out of shards, glassy polygons that seem to reflect hazy, unreadable drifts of flesh. There’s a scene in Black Book where the character Rachel Stein (Carice van Houten) looks at herself in a mirror and paints her pubic hair blonde, in order to conceal any lingering surface indication of her Jewish identity so she can seamlessly fold into German ranks and seduce a Nazi commander. Most of Showgirls occurs in the texture of some reflective surface; the dressing room, in which Nomi Malone (Elizabeth Berkley) and the other showgirls apply their makeup and bend themselves into their costumes, is composed of long parallel rows of mirrors. Every reflection is inevitably nested within other reflections, creating a minor infinity room.

15. Verhoeven characters, when they study their images in a mirror, are usually undergoing some kind of transformation; they’ve fallen through a gap in their self-image and are trying to reassemble themselves. The titular character in Katie Tippel discovers that her sister works at a brothel through a system of mirrors that reflect her sister auditioning for sex with an older man; it’s as if Katie’s conception of the world has fallen into an inversion. When she’s briefly enlisted in the brothel herself, she looks at herself in a mirror on the ceiling, panic and dissociation pulsing just behind her eyes. It’s a form of alienation, looking in the mirror, feeling oneself transferred from the dimensionality of experience to the flat composition of an image.

16. Mirrors also absorb one’s gaze; their primary function, the fundamental response they inspire, is looking. In one of Verhoeven’s earliest Dutch films, Turkish Delight, the main character watches himself undress his girlfriend in a mirror; she notices and shouts, “Oh, you’re watching me!” She then fixes her gaze on the mirror and contributes her own chain of looking, watching him watch her watch him. There is a sensuous thrill in Verhoeven’s films in the act of seeing and also of being seen. (This is why Hollow Man, the one film that Verhoeven disowns, doesn’t work; when Kevin Bacon becomes a transparent sex criminal, no one can tell that they’re being seen.)

17. What is sensuousness but another layer of reality, a feeling beyond touch that hovers over objects and flesh? Showgirls seems trapped entirely within this layer, in the feeling of being seen, with all its glittering spectacle, light flowing off of oiled skin and sequins until each dancer seems locked in their own glowing golden halo.

18. In his largely sarcastic commentary track, Showgirls fan David Schmader refers to an artbook released in conjunction with the movie that features writing by Verhoeven. “He refers to Showgirls as his MGM musical, with its overtones of Christian mythology and multiple layers of reality,” Schmader says. “It’s all very serious.”

19. Paul Verhoeven is extremely serious.

20. Especially when his movies occur in the universe of camp. Elizabeth Berkley’s performance in Showgirls is almost an extension of Verhoeven himself, a fictional embodiment of him whirling his arms like a bug on the set of Starship Troopers, every movement energized and exaggerated to its flashpoint; it’s laughable, initially, to see Berkley drink soda and consume fries with an unselfconscious violence, or to see her flutter and orgasm furiously against Kyle MacLachlan as they have sex in a pool. But as an execution of form, it approaches method.

21. What’s the mirror of being seen? What’s the shadow produced by all that unambiguous light? Showgirls, in its depiction of the almost infinite layers of seediness and corruption that lurk beneath the texture of Las Vegas, conveys an entire spectrum, the frictionless surface and the sophisticated darkness moving underneath. It could be, and probably would’ve been received better if it were, a David Lynch film. It’s an early version of Mulholland Drive where we never exit the dream.

22. There are other, less direct, more opaque mirrors in Verhoeven films, like the lens of a camera, or an eye, both of which regard and pursue Jeroen Krabbé (Gerard Reve) in The Fourth Man. There are the windows through which people are observed in Basic Instinct and Hollow Man. Douglas Quaid in Total Recall is constantly encountering his own face in different contexts, in videos transmitted by his secret alter ego, Carl Hauser, which are intended to guide him toward Mars and his true identity. While there is no sustained scene in Elle of Isabelle Huppert’s character looking at her own image in the mirror, she is constantly seeing variations of herself, whether it’s her face is pasted onto one of her own game sprites as it is raped by an orc, or the image of herself as a child, wearing a nightgown covered in blood, just after the police uncovered her father’s constellation of murders.

23. Fittingly, only in Hollow Man is a Verhoeven character incapable of reflection.

24. Verhoeven considers Hollow Man his most anonymous film, but it is very much a Verhoeven film in at least two aspects: in the way he documents the literally visceral, and the fearlessness with which his camera approaches male genitalia. (I also suppose that it contains a superficial rhyme with his filmography, in that there is a rape scene, and a more specific rhyme with one of his Dutch films, Katie Tippel; in both movies, a dog dies brutally.) There are a few full-body infrared shots of a naked Kevin Bacon; there is even a scene where one can witness the inner meat of Bacon’s dick slowly erode into emptiness. Unfortunately, these are the movie’s primary languages: flesh and emptiness. It’s Verhoeven’s eye applied to a mean, pointless movie, a showcase for fragmentary and gelatinous CGI.

25. Showgirls and Basic Instinct are also mean, pointless movies, but Verhoeven saw expressive depths somewhere beneath their meaningless and nihilistic surfaces. Verhoeven can’t see that far into Hollow Man. For all its uses of infrared, for every instance that a nervous system materializes out of thin air in thick, licorice-esque ropes, it has no human layer.

26. The scene where Kevin Bacon rapes a woman while invisible is, in particular, revolting cynical garbage.

27. There are an astonishing number of rape scenes in Paul Verhoeven’s filmography. Most of them are revolting, though Verhoeven is less interested in the inherent horror of rape than in rape as a kind of awful human infrastructure for the flow of power. His first English language film, 1985’s Flesh and Blood, is medieval fantasy that is way more invested in conveying its medieval aspect; there’s a long scene where Rutger Hauer’s character, Martin, rapes Agnes, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh. The camera lingers on the image long enough to register an adjustment in the dynamic. “If you think you’re hurting me, you’re wrong,” Agnes says. “I like it. I like it.” The peripheral characters then ponderously overstate this shift. “Hey Martin, she’s fucking you,” one says. “Look at this, Martin’s being raped!”

28. Verhoeven’s most recent movie, 2016’s Elle, inherits this fascination, and is perhaps his most complete film about it.

29. In Elle we first apprehend the terror of the assault through sound, through screams and the shattering of glass, and then as shadows passing drowsily through the eyes of a cat. The cat watches the unfolding violence with a curious indifference, a universal perspective in the sense that the universe is primarily composed of indifferent emptiness. When we see the scene again, later in the film, it’s Michèle’s (Isabelle Huppert) memory of the assault, regenerated by the cat’s yowl.

30. This initial assault restages itself around Michèle, in her periphery, like mirrors, or dreams. It’s a rupture that bends the rest of her reality around it, and requires her to survive it, to maintain her identity, her essential selfhood, within it.

31. Paul Verhoeven movies are dreams. This is a product of how much Hitchcock he’s absorbed, different layers of reality meeting at incoherent angles. There are the haunted reveries into which Jeroen Krabbé sinks in The Fourth Man, images of dead cows suspended from a ceiling, bleeding into buckets. The aura of dreaming in which everything in Basic Instinct is submerged, conveyed through a persistent soft focus. The reappearance of actors in different configurations throughout his filmography, like Rutger Hauer, whose face is a beautiful, extended, expressive chin, whether playing an accidental member of the Dutch resistance in Soldier of Orange or portraying a morally adrift artist in Turkish Delight. Even the aura of propaganda in which the perfectly symmetrical crypto-fascist teens of Starship Troopers are suspended; that, too, is a dream.

32. And his films which don’t take place in dream space are continually populated by dreams. Turkish Delight opens with the main character’s fantasies of killing his ex-girlfriend and her speculative new boyfriend. The commercials and news programs in RoboCop are like dreams, in that they are compressed fragments of narrative out of which Neumeier and Verhoeven build its near-future, establishing a fitful rhythm that shifts between artificial hearts, board games that simulate nuclear war, and a comical report of the U.S. president experiencing the weightlessness of space. Their overlap forms the architecture of a banal dystopia, a landscape in which a man repeatedly screams “I’d buy that for a dollar” through the cathode shivers of a TV screen. It’s Verhoeven’s vision of American capitalism, an image so grotesque and exaggerated that it becomes, in his hands, an exalted hyperreality.

33. Of Total Recall, Verhoeven once said, “I felt it was extremely important for me, from a philosophical level, to make a movie that had two levels and that both levels throughout would always be consistent and that you could never say, ‘Now we are in a dream or now we are in reality.’”

34. Total Recall and RoboCop remain my favorite Verhoeven films, sci-fi meditations on memory and identity, on the inherent incompleteness and reflexive pull of both. In Recall, Douglas Quaid’s identity is so deeply nested that it’s incoherent; by the end of the movie, he could be a construction worker having a photorealistic dream about being a secret agent; he could actually be a secret agent; or he could could be the true villain of the film, posing as a secret agent for the authoritarian Mars government, but too improperly distributed between identities to ever remember it totally. He survives and remains “himself,” but his new self is, at the very least, reconstructed from a kind of damage.

35. These, I’ve decided, are Verhoeven’s main subjects: damage and survival. He is interested in damage and how people resurface from damage, and how they use that damage in order to become something else. In Black Book this transformation is literal; after her family is massacred by the Nazis, Rachel Stein dyes her hair blonde and assumes the name Ellis de Vries. In order to survive, she detaches from her history and becomes a sourceless person, a kind of actor. Her hair, in its shape and texture, resembles Greta Garbo’s haze of curls, and the other characters in the film remark on this.

36. Nomi in Showgirls engages in a similar kind of performance, shedding her original name and her history of prostitution in order to remake herself as an ascendant dancer; she reduces her origins to an abstraction, informing the people in her new life that she’s from “different places.” Both Nomi and Stein are haunted differently by their pasts; their radical reconstructions of the self are legitimate, but only constitute half of their identities. Nomi in particular is the perfect Verhoeven protagonist: as she works her way toward becoming a star, the hyperreal, capitalistic structures around her inevitably compress her into a slick and unfeeling product.

37. Nomi is, in her own way, in her sourcelessness and shadow, a RoboCop.

38. In RoboCop, still Verhoeven’s finest work, the identity crisis of the main character, Alex Murphy (Peter Weller), initially revolves around the displacement of his name, the loss of “Murphy” to the greater, more complex system of “RoboCop.” He dies at the beginning of the film—in typical Verhoeven fashion, his body is at least partially obliterated—and when he’s resynthesized as RoboCop, his memory is erased. Later, when his partner Lewis (Nancy Allen) recognizes him, Murphy resurfaces, in fragments and in dreams of his wife, his child, his old house.

39. Murphy doesn’t ever have his memory totally restored. “I can feel them,” he tells Lewis later in the film as he talks about his family. His face, which for most of the film is obscured by a helmet, is fully unveiled for the first time since his death, the flesh of his forehead blending into dense metallic folds. “But I can’t remember them.” His first and strongest memories are of his death; he dreams of it, his body convulsing into harsh mechanical angles as he remembers the depth of the carnage, the trauma that lingered even as the body was replaced.

40. For Murphy, trauma is even stronger connective tissue than memory. It’s buried deeper in Murphy’s body than his own memories, embedding itself in his nerves. This is just one of many times within Verhoeven’s films that he suggests that identity isn’t constructed through narrative and image but instead identity convulses out of some deep, subterranean ache. Identity isn’t a product of what happens to you, nor is it a kind of nimbus flowing from your essential self. It is located somewhere between accident and intent, the distance between a figure and its shadow. Verhoeven’s films don’t endorse trauma but seem to imply that pain may be the closest we get to ourselves, to that immeasurable distance between self and selfhood, to the things that make us up.

41. This is where we find Verhoeven, and Isabelle Huppert, in Elle. Huppert constructs the character of Michèle so that her identity is never displaced; she survives her attack, and she resumes her life even as it’s been warped from inside. Even when she takes revenge on her rapist, her form of revenge is not material, but rather takes place mostly in the invisible flow of power.

42. Toward the end of Soldier of Orange, Rutger Hauer’s character Erik reencounters his Nazi-affiliated friend’s fiancée, Esther. Her hair has been cut short in order to identify her as the romantic associate of a Nazi collaborator. Erik asks how she is. Even as she has been transformed by external agents, Esther is sure of herself. “I have no complaints,” she says, her fringe shivering as she speaks. “I survived.”