Since 2006’s “Black Book,” 77 year-old Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven has virtually disappeared from the movie scene. Aside from the experimental “Tricked” in 2012, the director has kept a low-key profile, and there were some rumors that he had retired, and yet he was very much active, trying to get projects made, but struggling to raise money for them.
“The financing problem stems from Hollywood being only interested in sci-fi and superhero movies” he said at the Cannes Film Festival, where we talked with Verhoeven who was on hand promoting “Elle” (our review). “I had made two very expensive films, ‘Starship Troopers‘ and ‘Hollow Man,’ each cost around $100 million dollars or about that, to make. They were both box-office failures and Hollywood doesn’t usually forget these kind of things. It was also my fault as well, I mean ‘Hollow Man’ is probably the worst film I’ve ever done… After that I decided to concentrate on more personal projects such as ‘Black Book’ and ‘Elle.'”
Isabelle Huppert leads his latest film playing Michelle, the head of a successful video game company and recent victim of a violent rape. The fact that Michelle responds to the incident with such disturbing indifference makes the people around her, including her perpetrator, bewildered. She is disembodied, unfriendly, and robotic to the situation. And Verhoeven knew his controversial approach to the story might rub people the wrong way. “I never judge my characters. In life, I accept the fact that people may see things differently from me… You know, Michelle refuses to be a victim. That’s really the way I see it. And the film stands its ground firmly with this position. It’s powerful.”
And according to Verhoeven, bigger names had turned down the role of Michelle before he proposed it to Huppert. “Five very known actresses, but I can’t tell you who. Ask my producer. They all said no immediately because of the morality of the plot, how the heroine reacts to the sexual assault. That was the point of contention,” he explained. “In the U.S., it would have been a revenge movie, like ‘The Revenant.’ A film about revenge would certainly have been acceptable but it was not the story I wanted to tell.”
Regardless, the 63 year-old Huppert gives a powerhouse, revelatory performance in the picture, and for Verhoeven, the film and actress was a match made in heaven.
“She arrived on the project well before me…in our heads, it was to be an American film. When we realized that that was going to be impossible, we went to Paris,” he said. “It seemed natural and clear. And she said yes immediately. I had no doubts about her ability to inhabit the role, but I did not know how great of an experience it was going to be to work with her. Her eyes, they are so important. They are the center of everything. There is always a process of thinking and deep reflection in her eyes.”
Although “Elle” ended up being a French film, Verhoeven still says he “was influenced by [his] American movies.” His classics, which include “Basic Instinct,” “Robocop,” and “Total Recall,”have always dealt with the comedic side of darkness. “I’ve always had it, that sense that a subject as heavy and black needs to be balanced by humor. It protects me from the subject. I’m influenced by Buñuel, I’ve seen all the movies.”
Money rules everything. The studios have abandoned the quality. Everything is smooth, it idles. They try to avoid controversy.
The subject of American cinema has always fascinated the filmmaker; after all, he still holds many of his best memories working within the studio system, however, times have changed. The same system that once called him has now turned against him. “American cinema today is missing all existential thought. There’s no questioning society. No politics. Studios try to make themselves feel good with the movies that make it to the Oscars.”
And yet, Hollywood has tried to fashion remakes out of Verhoeven helmed pictures, and he has little regard for the results.
“I went through the ‘Robocop’ [remake] script and it seemed to have the same problems as the ‘Total Recall’ remake. There’s no humor in it. ‘Total Recall’ was supposed to have Harrison Ford in the lead, but once that fell through and Arnold [Schwarzenegger] came into the equation the tone of the film had to be changed and we infused a little humor into it,” the director said. “The remake takes place almost entirely on Earth, what a bore! It’s also such a self-serious film.”
“Right now, Hollywood doesn’t fit with my artistic sensibilities,” he continued. “I feel that in France and in Europe, there is enormous respect for filmmakers. This doesn’t happen in Hollywood. For us, it’s hard to shoot there because they do not want what we want. There, all films must be visible to the greatest number. Money rules everything. The studios have abandoned the quality. Everything is smooth, it idles. They try to avoid controversy.”
At 77 years old, time might be catching up, but there doesn’t seem to be anything stopping the prolific writer-director from making another movie. Although there is nothing on the horizon at the moment as his next project, he seems very open to the possibility of making films in his 80s and beyond that. “It takes strong motivation to have to get up at 6 AM and go to bed at midnight for months. I’m also boosted by fear, by the fact of not knowing if I’m able to carry out a project that interests me. Although it is not always easy, to explore unknown territories is what I desire the most.”
To explore unknown territories is what he’s been doing for over five decades. This is a man who’s been pushing not only himself, but his audiences to the most provocative and illicitly fascinating cinematic worlds imaginable. “Elle” is another example of the button pushing morality that has infused his classic films. There’s sex, violence, sadism and yet, it all comes together to set its main protagonist free from the shackles of the world she lives in. Is there anything more Verhoeven-esque than that?
“Elle” will be released in the U.S. by Sony Pictures Classics.