Where To Start With... Paul Verhoeven
Dutch director Paul Verhoeven is not an easy man to pigeonhole. Born in the Netherlands while the country was still under Nazi occupation, Verhoeven's early career marked him out as one of the country's most successful (and controversial) directors, conjuring a string of critically-acclaimed films such as Turkish Delight and The 4th Man before relocating to America to bring his unique take on cinematic storytelling to a wider audience.
During the 1980s and 90s, Verhoeven brought us a series of films that spanned several genres, from the cyberpunk sci-fi of Robocop, through the sexually charged murder-mystery of Basic Instinct to the satirical intergalactic, shoot-'em-up action of Starship Troopers. But while it's difficult to pin Verhoeven down to a certain style or genre, his films do often include thematic tropes, one of the most persistent of which being a knack for illustrating the often cruel nature of humanity.
So it is with Elle, only his second feature film in the last decade and a characteristically edgy return to form after the decidedly mixed reaction to 2012's Tricked.
The new film stars Isabelle Huppert as Michèle Leblanc, the headstrong chief executive of a successful video game development company whose life is transformed when an unknown assailant breaks into her home, attacks and rapes her. So far, so harrowing.
Except that this is a Paul Verhoeven film, and so instead of collapsing into the archetypal broken victim role, Michèle is instead hellbent on revenge and sets out to track down her attacker by all means necessary. Because she happens to be the daughter of an infamous serial killer, Michèle is reluctant to involve the police as both they and the newspapers gave her a rough ride during the investigation into her father's crimes, even implying that the young Michèle was somehow complicit in his actions. Instead, Michèle enters into a game of cat-and-mouse with her assailant, trying to lure him out into the open so that she may exact her revenge.
Huppert's detached portrayal of the film's protagonist is a perfect fit for the role, and while the film's subject matter and depiction of rape victims is bound to be controversial, Verhoeven's extraordinary tale contains a surprising amount of humour, albeit a type of comedy of the very blackest variety. If this is Verhoeven's way of reminding everyone that, even at the age of 78, he still has the capacity to shock and awe, you'd have to concede that he's achieved his aim here.
You can find the trailer for Elle below, beneath that we've picked out five highlights from Paul Verhoeven's long and varied career...
Although Robocop wasn't Verhoeven's first English-language film – that distinction belongs to Flesh & Blood, released two years earlier – this 1987 sci-fi classic was certainly the film that put him on the map as far as Hollywood is concerned. Set in a dystopian future Detroit in which the mayor has entered into a partnership with a nefarious robotics corporation known as OCP, the company has plans to roll out a new police robot called the ED-209. But when a unit malfunctions at a demonstration, killing an officer, an ambitious employee offers an alternative – a cyborg with a human brain. All he needs is a test subject, and when a young cop named Alex Murphy is brutally gunned down and left for dead, the OCP takes the opportunity to revive him in robotic form, transforming Murphy into the ultimate crime-fighting machine.
Arnold Schwarzenegger stars in this 1900 sci-fi film adapted from a short story by Philip K. Dick, in which a bored construction worker attempts to inject some action into his life by visiting Recall, a companywhich specialises in implanting false memories of holidays, adventures and other experiences. However, when the implant process goes awry, he finds that he may not be who he thinks he is and sets off on a mission to Mars to discover the truth. At the time of its release, Total Recall's visual effects were considered groundbreaking and while some of them may seem a little dated now, the film has become something of a cult classic and is amongst Schwarzenegger's most iconic roles.
The film that will be forever remembered for that interrogation scene featuring Sharon Stone, Verhoeven's 1992 thriller stars Michael Douglas as a San Francisco detective investigating the brutal murder of a rock star named Johnny Boz, with Stone playing the number one suspect, an author named Catherine Trammell who was Boz's girlfriend at the time of his death. The detective is convinced that Trammell is the culprit since one of her novels featured a very similar murder, but in order to prove her guilt he enters into a dangerous game of cat-and-mouse with the author, and when the body count starts to rise and contradicting evidence begins to pile up, he is forced to re-examine his convictions. A story full of twists and turns, Basic Instinct is a film that will keep you guessing until the very end.
Loosely based on a novel of the same name by the prolific (and often controversial) author Robert A. Heinlein, Starship Troopers is set in a future Earth dominated by a global government where military service is the norm for most young people. The story follows a group of young recruits who find themselves shipped into battle against an alien insect race, with nothing less than the future of humanity at stake. The film divided opinion when it was first released; some viewed it as an empty-headed sci-fi flick, while others variously interpreted the story as a comment on fascism or an allegory for the Cold War. Given the source material, we'd lean towards the latter, but either way it's a hugely entertaining and somewhat underrated entry in Verhoeven's filmography.
Our final pick is this Dutch-language film released in 2006 and starring Carice van Houten as a Dutch-Jewish woman named Rachel Stein hiding from the Nazis at the end of the second world war. When the farmhouse she is hiding out in is accidentally bombed by the Americans, Rachel manages to get herself involved with a Resistance group planning to ship a boatload of Jewish refugees to the South Netherlands, now under Allied control. However, their vessel is attacked by a German patrol boat and everyone except Rachel is killed, but despite surviving the attack she is still stuck in occupied territory. Persuaded to help free some captured Resistance fighters by dying her hair blonde and using an alias to seduce a German commander, Rachel soon discovers that the ambush on the boat may not have happened by chance, as she initially thought. Verhoeven's first Dutch-language film since 1983's The 4th Man, Black Book was voted the 'best Dutch film ever' in a public vote in 2008. Whether or not that's the case, we'll leave up to you to decide, but it's certainly one of the director's finest films and is highly recommended viewing.