The Reeler


April 3, 2007

The Paul Bearers

Carice van Houten and Paul Verhoeven on the director's women and the notoriety of Black Book

Sleeper cell: Carice van Houten (center), manhandled again in Paul Verhoeven's Black Book (Photo: Sony Pictures Classics)

Carice van Houten looked surprised and more than a bit bewildered. She was in town for the New York premiere of Black Book, the World War II action melodrama in which she stunningly portrays Rachel, a Jewish woman undercover with the Dutch resistance. As the newly named Ellis, she sleeps with a Nazi officer to infiltrate the occupation and spring her jailed comrades; she bleaches her pubic hair to be the complete blonde. Upon her own postwar arrest for giving comfort to the enemy, she is verbally humiliated and drenched in a torrent of shit.

It was a lesson in many senses, perhaps none more so than the prurient history of one Paul Verhoeven, Black Book's director and one of the more polarizing filmmakers of his generation -- particularly for his depiction of women characters' motivations, determinations and invulnerabilities in early Dutch work like Spetters and The Fourth Man and his American tandem of Basic Instinct and Showgirls. The often-graphic overlap of sexuality and violence onto these dynamics is a continually startling hallmark of Verhoeven's work, and Black Book, his first Dutch-language film in over two decades (opening Wednesday in New York), returns him to the familiar narrative ground of 1977's WWII saga Soldier of Orange while toying with latter-era tropes of post-feminism and pure potboiler camp.

This isn't a tradition lost on van Houten, 30, but when asked why she and other actresses go to such lengths for Verhoeven, she seemed baffled -- as though working with the director is about depth, not distance.

"First, he's a very charming man," she said. "Second, you feel that he feels well around women. That's obvious. Everybody knows that. You feel very safe with him, because he almost lifts you up. He gives you a lot of freedom, and you really have the feeling that you are loved by this man. And this feeling helps you do a lot. There are so many strange stories about this man, and I would love to give you a scoop of a scary, strange weird story or something -- that I didn't know they were filming the pubic hair. But it's not like that. He's like the sweetest man I've ever worked for, almost."

It's fearless, selfless work that has shot her to international stardom alongside co-star (and real-life paramour) Sebastian Koch -- a trajectory worth attributing in no small part to both actors' and audiences' faith in the Verhoeven brand. Or maybe "faith" is the wrong word; "curiosity" -- and an enduring curiosity, at that -- is perhaps more apt, the craving for the odd philosophical rigor behind the blood, bared flesh and sublime allegorical sleaze. Black Book has it, based in part on the story of a Dutchwoman who, in fact, as a Resistance spy, seduced a Nazi before subsequently falling in love with and marrying him. Koch's brooding Officer Müntze yields an ambivalence just sympathetic enough to humanize him, thus establishing a sexuality less cynical (if just as doomed) than that of any Verhoeven film since Turkish Delight.

"This film is a bit contrary to other films I have made," Verhoeven told me. "Notably Showgirls and Spetters, where the woman is mostly driven by what you would call opportunistic reasons -- to improve her position or to climb up. She uses her sexuality. You could say, of course, that Basic Instinct is in that direction, but Catherine Trammell does not do it to improve her position, because she's already an academic. She has money, she's sort of famous. She does it for the strange reason she can get away with it. Still, she's using her sexuality in some way: She's using it to lure people into her bed and stab them.

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"In this case, it's different, and I wanted it to be different," he continued. "It was based on things that happened in the war. This girl is asked by the leader of the Resistance, Mr. Kuipers, to sleep with a German officer. It's a request. She could have denied that request. She felt that after what they had done for her -- you see her hesitating and thinking about it. ... She does that out of altruistic reasons instead of opportunistic or egoistic reasons. I think there's a essential difference about the motivation of the character; she does not do it because she gets better. All the other women do things to get pleasure out of it or to get better. Basically, she doesn’t think that it's pleasurable. You can see in the first time she goes to sleep with the guy -- you feel from her attitude and the way she looks that she is trying to cope with the situation. Later, she falls in love with him."

Which isn't to say the extremes of Spetters, Basic Instinct or Showgirls (the latter two of which arguably owe their overall spirit to screenwriter Joe Eszterhas, anyway) don't inform Black Book; Ellis's sexuality is synonymous with her moral authority, and as such, her persecution by utterly immoral means is limited only to the boundaries of Verhoeven's imagination. And to hear him tell it, despite what you see in Black Book, there are boundaries -- and the way he wins actresses' trust is to demarcate those outermost lines as specifically and incontrovertibly as possible.

"I'm very honest with them," Verhoeven said. "I tell them exactly what I want. And there is no improvisation on the set -- never with anything that has to do with unpleasantness. Sexuality, nudity, whatever. I would never come up with new ideas on the set for these kinds of scenes. I tell them exactly what I want so that there is no confusion. Often, if they'd really like it -- and they usually do, especially with Sharon (Stone, whom Basic Instinct established in the stratosphere 15 years ago) -- I give them all the storyboards. Basically, they can look at it and look at the video after they've shot it; if they have a problem, we re-shoot it. I think it's a question of being straight about it -- not suddenly coming on the set and saying, 'Oh, you have to suck her nipple,' or something like that. I've used that line before. It's very straight. It's exactly what I think the lips or the this or the that should do in the scene. What part of the body will be open to the camera, or how much nudity or whatever it is."

But then there's Rachel/Ellis' detention, a pre-climax whose atrocity Verhoeven freely likens to that of Abu Ghraib but which reflects an even more troubling power shift in which she must pay a steep symbolic price for her sexual indiscretion. Hint: It gives literal meaning to the phrase "shitstorm," a moment so physically and narratively vile that van Houten said she barely got through it.

Again, Verhoeven was up-front. "In the situation with the shit, I told her exactly what was going to happen," he said. "The only thing I did, because I knew it would be extremely unpleasant and I knew that she was not really aware how unpleasant it was: I sent her some flowers in the morning. And said, 'Good luck.' But, I mean, it was in the script, and it was done like it was in the script. Of course, the reality of doing a scene like that -- which was not real shit, but was anyhow so disgusting they everybody nearly had to throw up after every take because it was stinking in the most disgusting way? It was horrible.

"And there's a lot of weight of your shoulders," he added, perhaps another of his sly metaphors -- a tribute to his women, who no doubt could use all the help they can get.

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