Were Showgirls and Starship Troopers misunderstood masterpieces? Elle director Paul Verhoeven has last laugh

Golden Globes for rape-revenge drama that ‘uptight’ Hollywood wouldn’t bankroll prompt US critics to reassess two Verhoeven films whose satirical take on modern America didn’t resonate with audiences when they were released

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 11 January, 2017, 11:31am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 11 January, 2017, 11:36am

For years he has been the butt of cinematic snobbery, shunned by Hollywood after the “crazed, lurid spectacle” of his flops Showgirls and Starship Troopers , which were roundly panned by critics.

But after his latest film, Elle, was the big winner at the Golden Globes after La La Land, Dutch director Paul Verhoeven is, at the age of 78, finally being rehabilitated.

His twisted take on the rape-revenge thriller won best foreign film and best actress for its mesmerising French star Isabelle Huppert, a double victory that was seen as one in the eye for the members of the Oscar nominations committee who have snubbed it.

“How many times in my life have I been rejected, even here in the Netherlands,” he told Dutch public broadcaster NOS on Monday. “So it is really great to finally get something.”

The man who reinvented the sci-fi genre with RoboCop in 1987 and Total Recall two years later, before the scandalous success of Basic Instinct, had become something of a Hollywood pariah.

He said that several A-list American actresses turned down Elle because it strayed dangerously far from accepted boundaries with its rape-victim heroine tracking down her attacker to extract her own pleasure from him.

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After struggling for years to get the studios interested in the dark, ambiguous comedy, he finally got it made in France.

Dutch critic Diederik van Hoogstraten, of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association which awards the Globes, said Verhoeven would never have been allowed to make in the film in the US “without changing the script”.

“He didn’t want to change it because they had a problem with the theme of the film,” he said, blaming what Verhoeven called America’s “moral politics” for frustrating him.

The director also accused Hollywood of being uptight, shying away from “challenging” films about sex. “You cannot be provocative, you cannot be controversial, you cannot be sexual, erotic, in a direct way,” he said.

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With Elle now being showered with almost universal praise despite its slippery subject matter, some US critics are going so far as to argue that Verhoeven’s two supposed turkeys, Showgirls and Starship Troopers, were misunderstood masterpieces.

Showgirls in particular has been proclaimed a cult camp classic, with the Canadian critic Adam Nayman arguing in his book It Doesn’t Suck that it was a brilliant satire on the debasement of the American dream.

The late French director Jacques Rivette was always a believer, calling it in 1998 “one of the greatest American films of the last few years”.

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Influential US magazine The Atlantic last year described Starship Troopers as one of the “most misunderstood movies ever”, urging doubters to “open themselves to the rigour and intensity of Verhoeven’s approach and you’ll get the joke Starship Troopers is telling” about US jingoism.

British critic Jonathan Romney said Elle is “definitely considered a major triumphant return to form for Verhoeven, although a lot of people were very impressed by the seriousness and modesty of his 2006 war film Black Book ” – which has been voted the best Dutch film ever.

“I was never convinced by Showgirls myself, and maybe I wasn’t able to see past the surface, but to me it looked awkward and kitsch,” Romney said. “But a lot of people take it seriously as a statement on America or as some sort of feminist text. There’s even a scene in Mia Hansen-Love’s latest film Eden [which also stars Huppert] in which a bunch of cinephiles earnestly discuss its merits.”

Already the beginning of a backlash against Verhoeven’s new-found respectability appears to be brewing.

While Variety critic Owen Gleiberman urged people to see Elle, “this audacious, paradigm-smashing movie” and its bravura performance from Huppert, he stuck the knife into its creator.

Far from being a feminist film, he said, its heroine who turns the tables on her rapist is merely “Verhoeven’s sadomasochistic caveman version of sex-positive feminism”.

“My puzzlement over the rapture it has inspired begins with a question that’s been percolating around in my brain ever since it was released – where’s the outrage?” he added.