At eighty-three, Paul Verhoeven has begun work on his eighteenth feature. Young Sinner, a political thriller set in Washington, D.C., will reunite the director with screenwriter Edward Neumeier, with whom he wrote RoboCop (1987) and Starship Troopers (1997). “Our heroine, a young staffer who works for a powerful senator, is drawn into a web of international intrigue and danger, and of course there is also a little sex,” Neumeier tells MovieMaker’s Caleb Hammond. “We have been consulting with a former intelligence officer, Ron Marks, who is trying to keep us real about Capitol Hill and the spy business, but satire always seems to emerge when Paul and I work together, so I expect our new adventure will have a light tone.”
Talking to Jane Hu in the New Yorker, Verhoeven emphasizes that Young Sinner “should have the lightness of North by Northwest.” Since the premiere in Cannes this summer of Benedetta, critics have naturally focused on the two motifs running like electric current throughout the oeuvre, sex and spirituality—diametrically opposed for some, inextricable for Verhoeven—but also on his penchant for ambiguity and Hitchcock. “I have been building my visuals by looking at Alfred Hitchcock, Ingmar Bergman, and Sergei Eisenstein movies,” Verhoeven tells Hammond. “I have studied these movies forever, and I’m still studying them. It’s not too difficult to see that Basic Instinct is heavily influenced by Hitchcock’s Vertigo.”
In the run-up to Benedetta’s arrival in the U.S. this past weekend, New York’s IFC Center presented a series of twelve films, sampling from the three phases of Verhoeven’s career. The standout of the six features he made in the Netherlands is Turkish Delight (1973), which Dana Linssen and MUBI Podcast host Rico Gagliano revisited this summer in order to explain how and why it took the country “by storm.”
Verhoeven spent the 1980s and ’90s in Hollywood, where he made his biggest hit yet, Basic Instinct (1992). “Despite the polarizing responses that Basic Instinct continues to generate—regressive auteur-driven misogyny or well-wrought homage to Hitchcock’s blondes?—its extended glimpses of flesh are underpinned by a surprising amount of auteurist self-restraint and ambiguity,” writes Sarah Fonseca in Reverse Shot’s current symposium on objects in the movies. Fonseca zooms in on the ice pick. “In the end,” she writes, “Basic Instinct leaves it up to the viewer to determine guilt, innocence, and the fate of its lovers.”
The IFC Center series had Ayanna Dozier take another look at Showgirls (1995) for Screen Slate. “Beat by beat,” she writes, “the plot can best be described as All About Eve: Vegas edition.” Screen Slate’s Cosmo Bjorkenheim revisited the film that launched the third phase, the movies made in Europe for less money and with longer breaks between releases. In Black Book (2006), in which Carice van Houten plays a Jewish woman who joins the Dutch resistance during the Second World War, Verhoeven examines “the trouble with idealistic commitments,” writes Bjorkenheim.
Anyone looking for a refresher on the oeuvre has two fresh and very fine options. Slant has revised its annotated rankings, ranging from Verhoeven’s first feature, Business Is Business (1971), which introduced “a favorite set of progressive themes and a flair for instilling even small moments with a swaggering, ramshackle kineticism,” as Jaime N. Christley writes in the introduction, to Benedetta, which comes in at #10. The second option is Nicolas Rapold’s splendid hourlong conversation with Margaret Barton-Fumo, the editor of Paul Verhoeven: Interviews, and Adam Nayman, the author of It Doesn’t Suck: Showgirls.
Both of Rapold’s guests have recently written about Benedetta, which draws on Judith C. Brown’s 1986 book Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy. Within the walls of a Tuscan convent, Benedetta (Virginie Efira) has visions of a hunky Christ, rises in the ranks, and is allowed a private room where she cavorts with young Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia). Verhoeven’s “refusal to differentiate between the sacred and the profane is more thrilling in a context that actually acknowledges the former,” writes Nayman for n+1. He points out that Verhoeven has “served for decades as a non-tenured member of the Californian scholarly enclave known as the Jesus Seminar,” and “his entertaining 2007 literary historical biography Jesus of Nazareth imagines its subject as a rabble-rousing, proto-socialist Che Guevara manqué—a figure to join the director’s gallery of rebels and outcasts.”
“Like Nomi Malone of Showgirls,” writes Barton-Fumo for Screen Slate, “Benedetta has strong survival instincts and an addiction to the limelight, but her incessant ambiguity is more in line with Catherine Tramell of Basic Instinct, keeping the audience guessing as to the sincerity of her faith.” Benedetta is “a fantastically shrewd, grotesque satire, and so very Verhoeven, down to the final shot.”
Not everyone agrees. Vulture’s Bilge Ebiri finds Benedetta “surprisingly unsurprising. In some ways, it encapsulates the director’s best and worst instincts. It might be his most personal film, a genuine effort to understand the connection between two of his key obsessions, spiritual faith and human impulse. It’s also hard to shake the feeling that the film wants to outrage us into a response, but its supposed transgressions often feel tired and pro forma.”
For Beatrice Loayza at Reverse Shot, the film’s “dominating mood” is a “drab cynicism as Benedetta’s politicking devolves into redundant miracle-brandishing and her conflict with the papal leaders into a perpetual back-and-forth of finger-pointing and chest-puffing: You’re the blasphemer! No, you! Ad infinitum. These developments would seem to play for laughs, but the ridiculousness stems less from outrageousness than the rote persistence of such a meaningless performance (as the bubonic plague ravages the country, no less). In this sense, Verhoeven’s supposed indictment of religion plays more like a late-capitalist statement envisioned at a Brechtian remove, revealing the ease with which even the most self-righteously rigid institutions will absorb blatantly incompatible subjects with the right price and strategy.”
Writing for Film Comment,Genevieve Yue suggests that the film’s “nose-thumbing, while ostensibly pointed at the Church, extends to all manners of stifled creativity, including, most immediately, the blandness of contemporary filmmaking.” In the Los Angeles Times,Justin Chang observes that “even the fluidity and mobility of the camerawork in these shadowy environs (the movie was shot by the gifted Jeanne Lapoirie) feels like a rejection of austerity.” In Benedetta, Verhoeven “has found a heroine whose genuine fervor, though hardly beyond the reach of parody, also awakens his sympathy and his generosity. It takes a particular deftness for a movie to wear its intelligence and its irreverence so lightly. You might even call it grace.”
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