There’s a scene in Paul Verhoeven’s Elle in which Michèle (Isabelle Huppert), the CEO of a video-game company, discovers that a certain male employee is responsible for creating a clip in which her face is PhotoShopped onto a woman being violated by a tentacle monster. Faced with any number of paths for punishment, Michèle looks him in the eyes and says: “Take out your dick.” As in Basic Instinct or Black Book, Verhoeven finds ways to cap scenes with tense moments of “who’s the victim here”? through reversals of sexual power that undercut masculine pride.
The scene distills Verhoeven’s aesthetics into microcosm; women are agents of power who use their sexuality as weapons against male oppressors, yet they can also actually be murderers in the same breath. If Elle plays, at times, more straightforward than some of Verhoeven’s other work, it’s because the film deploys genre kicks as only one dimension of its impressive formal and thematic spectrum. At once an almost Buñuelian satire of the bourgeoisie and a Chabrolian thriller of manners, Elle is ultimately all Verhoeven in its play with the limits of sexual delight and its irreconcilable contradictions.
I spoke with Verhoeven about Elle’s story element, how he now views the reception of his films during the 1990s, and why he quickly decided to let Isabelle Huppert do just about whatever she wanted to during production.
Looking back, I think Starship Troopers was the first genre film I had ever seen that upended all of my conceptions about war movies. It, along with your other Hollywood films in particular, has undoubtedly had a significant impact on how I approach art. Have you had younger people say similar things about your films, in terms of influence?
Sometimes there are younger directors, especially more in Europe than [the U.S.] that tell me that. In France there have been several, as well as in Holland. They tell me, basically, that my movies were important to them. Sure, that happens. But not, let’s say, every day. In general, you don’t meet so many other directors in your life anyhow, except at film festivals where everyone is complimentary to one another. You have to take all of that with a grain of salt, perhaps. But the films have generated a certain apprehension, and the people a sympathy, for the movies I make.
There has been a renaissance of writings about your films, specifically from the ’90s, over the past several years. Do these newly offered perceptions align with what you perceive the films to be yourself?
Absolutely. If you look at Starship Troopers, it was bashed in many reviews for being a so-called neo-fascistic or neo-Nazi movie. Not just by the critics, but also in editorials. There was a big misunderstanding about Starship Troopers at that time because somehow they didn’t really look at the movie, or were so disturbed and distracted that they didn’t see, of course, that it was an attack on fascism. Ed Neumeier and I were fighting the militaristic, fascistic elements of [Robert A.] Heinlein’s book. I think we were fundamentally misunderstood by a lot of people. But it’s so on the nose, of course, when you see Neil Patrick Harris coming out in a Nazi SS uniform and saying, “Well, we had to sacrifice a lot of people and, by the way, we might have to sacrifice you and your group also.” [Laughs]
So, it’s clear we’re talking about fascism. I mean, how can you misinterpret this kind of blatant, black leather coat that he’s wearing there? It seemed to be so obvious to me. As is Johnny Rico and his entire group not being aware of their situation. They are naïve and believe in a fascist utopia, while the context of the movies, especially the newsreels and all of that, continuously confront the idea that these people are heroes, but they’re also caught up in a neo-fascist dream. It was clear to me and I couldn’t understand at that time how people didn’t see that. But that’s what happens.
With Showgirls, the attack on Vegas, for example, which was already in Joe Esterhas’s script, was that everything is bottom line and that sexuality is only another thing that you can sell for the highest price. That also was, let’s say, not seen. I always felt [the critics] were so distracted by the naked breasts that they couldn’t see the rest of the movie.
There’s an antagonism to your work that comes from within genre films, rather than the more noticeable commentary of a prestige or art film. Do think that is, in part, why it has been difficult for some critics to comprehend these films?
Sure, because that’s not a very American way of expressing yourself. They don’t like the idea that you don’t say exactly what your criticisms are, that you don’t put all of your criticisms on the front page, that there’s a subversive, underneath current that you feel and is expressed in a metaphorical way. It was so unusual. If you look at, say, Star Wars, then of course everything is straight, isn’t it? There is no double meaning. What you see is what you get—and that’s fine. That was what [George] Lucas did and he did it in a great way. But we did something different. We were using this genre to express political ideas and our ideas about the United States. It’s very unusual in the American grammar and language of film to take that road. Perhaps that’s a more European way. It was me looking at the United States with admiration and, at the same time, cynicism and doubt.