Multiple Realities:

The Hollywood Films of Paul Verhoeven

After making a name for himself in the Netherlands, Paul Verhoeven moved to Hollywood in the 1980s to work on American films. From that period through the 1990s Verhoeven directed a series of movies across genres, from science fiction (RoboCop, Total Recall, Starship Troopers, and the forgettable Hollow Man, which Verhoeven himself even dismisses) to erotic thrillers (Basic Instinct) to sexually charged camp (Showgirls). No matter the genre, Verhoeven consistently returned to several key themes. These films explore the idea of multiple and simultaneously coexisting realities, the corrosive effects of unchecked greed and capitalism on society, and sex as both erotic and dangerous. Throughout, his films display a powerful visual aesthetic.

Verhoeven’s Hollywood films were often dismissed as pure popcorn trash, by critics and audiences alike. Many were even repulsed by the extreme violence and sexually explicit nature of much of the work. The critical pans received by the largely misunderstood Showgirls and Starship Troopers basically turned Verhoeven in a Hollywood outcast for years. Since he returned to his more European roots, with the critically lauded films Black Book (2006) and Elle (2016), a welcome critical reevaluation of his Hollywood work has started to emerge. Audiences and critics alike have lived with these films for twenty or thirty years now, thus finding new and deeper meaning in them through repeated viewings.

Paul Verhoeven: Interviews, edited by Margaret Barton-Fumo, offers an opportunity to explicate the complex ideas and concepts at play in the director’s films. The interviews, from various sources and presented in chronological order, range from the start of his career until the present day, providing a comprehensives overview of his oeuvre. Together, they offer a fascinating look inside the mind of a cerebral and confident director. Throughout, Verhoeven reveals, in his own words, how carefully and thoughtfully he approaches his films, which may surprise those who view them only as disposable cinema. Again, his films may be wildly entertaining, but they’re also loaded with often biting social commentary. It doesn’t hurt that Verhoeven is wonderful company to spend time with in these interviews. He’s open, introspective, and passionate about discussing not only his films, but the larger cultural, societal, and historical influences on his work.

One thematic device across his films that Verhoeven returns to often in these interviews is the idea that there is no one “real” reality; instead there are many. In these interviews, he suggest that his training as a mathematician may be responsible for his interest in exploring how multiple realities can coexist at the same time. He explores differing yet coexisting realities in various ways across his filmography. Sometimes he does so in science fictional terms, as in Total Recall (1990), with its varying realities in dream states, memory implants, and “real life.” In other films, like Showgirls (1995), Verhoeven looks at the different sides/realities of human nature in a story about how far one woman will go to reach her dreams, including whether or not she’ll sell her soul to do so.

When viewed today through the prism of the current American and global political landscape, Verhoeven’s first American film, RoboCop (1987), seems downright prescient. The film’s near-future Detroit is a wasteland, decimated not only by crime but by the privatization of law enforcement. Greedy corporate overlords may talk of reducing crime but their number one goal is to maximize profits. Creating a RoboCop from the remains of a murdered police officer is only the next step in corporate-financed paramilitary-style policing. With the current U.S. president constantly pushing privatization as the answer to complex issues concerning healthcare and education—because, hey, it works in business and the rich can profit off it!—while also shamelessly undermining the need for fact-based accounting when facts don’t support his views, the United States now feels closer to RoboCop‘s dystopian future than when the film was made. As a work of science fiction, RoboCop posits the worst possible end-point, serving as a cautionary tale that just so happens to be a visually stunning action extravaganza.

The near-universal criticisms leveled against Showgirls in 1995, namely that it was tacky exploitation, seem rooted in reactionary prudishness and more than a little tone deaf today. This is a movie set in a milieu—the world of Vegas showgirls and strippers—that is all about tacky exploitation. Verhoeven not only shows us how Nomi (Elizabeth Berkley) is exploited by the erotic dance industries, but also how she exploits them in order to move up the showbiz ladder. It’s about ruthless people using each other to get what they want. Berkley’s uninhibited performance perfectly captures Nomi’s single-minded focus on moving up the showbiz chain.

Sexuality was integral to the world being portrayed here. As Berkley said in a 1995 interview, as the film was set to open, “The nudity is necessary and essential to the story. To portray [Nomi] any other way would be a lie, you know. She’s a stripper. She wears a G-string and five inch heels.” This supports Verhoeven’s assertion in another 1995 interview that he’s presenting a fun, deliciously trashy peak into a world that already exists. “It’s not trying to make a sexual statement,” he said, “It just has a certain lightness and freedom of expressing itself in sexual or nudity terms which I feel is refreshing if you see how American filmmakers in general are forced to treat sexuality in their movies because they cannot show anything.” Verhoeven felt he could only make this movie with the NC-17 rating from the start and he never compromised that vision.

Verhoeven’s work is often visually eye-catching, with those visuals serving to complement the themes at play in his films. He frames and captures actors in motion with clarity and authority. He provides storyboards for the actors to work from. This allowed him to meticulously choreograph a sex scene between Sharon Stone and Michael Douglas in Basic Instinct with the same precision and care he applies to the explosive mayhem in RoboCop‘s most brutal action sequences. Verhoeven says, “The sex scenes between Catherine (Stone) and Nick (Douglas) in Basic Instinct were never supposed to get exciting. They are in fact thriller scenes. They are disguised as erotic scenes but it’s basically a killer-walking-into-your-house-at-night kind of scene.”

His films leave indelible images in our minds: the ED 209 annihilating an executive in the board room in RoboCop, Arnold’s head exploding in Total Recall, Berkley lasciviously—and hilariously—licking the pole during a striptease for the ages in Showgirls, and of course, Stone’s infamous police interrogation scene in Basic Instinct. That scene is discussed in several interviews included in the book and reveals a friction between the director and his star. Stone was initially unhappy with Verhoeven’s choice to use the notorious up-skirt shot. The director claims it was the right artistic choice, but one can’t help detect a bit of patriarchal mansplaining. It can’t be denied that several of his films are purposely trying to push people’s buttons through sex or violence. That’s just another example of how uncompromising Verhoeven is when in service of his directorial vision. And, as he says in the interviews, that scene in Basic Instinct has endured as the film’s signature moment. Stone herself eventually agreed. Film is a visual medium, after all, and Verhoeven clearly understands that.

Paul Verhoeven: Interviews provides the director’s story in his own words, helping to illuminate the key themes and issues at the heart of much of his work. The interviews dig deep into Verhoeven’s career, his motivations, and his artistic vision. It reveals him to be an extremely thoughtful filmmaker who is not afraid to shock, and is in fact more than willing to push the boundaries of good taste in order to stay true to his art. Even his so-called failures have endured and are now being rediscovered by a new generation of film fans unburdened by past negative reviews, as well as by people who have gained a new appreciation for them after years of repeated viewings. Together, the Hollywood films of Paul Verhoeven make for a cohesive and at times wildly entertaining look at an often-maligned and misunderstood filmmaker.

Tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.


Michael Campochiaro works in academic publishing and spends any free time he can find reading and drawing. You can read more of Michael's musings at his blog, Words Seem Out Of Place.

See more, including free online content, on .

Leave a Reply