In 1943, when Paul Verhoeven was five, his family moved to The Hague, the location of the Nazi's Netherlands headquarters. He would traipse down the street, hand-in-hand with his father, past stacks of dead bodies. In an interview from Cannes, he recalled how he didn't realize a world without war was even possible until after the liberation.
This moribund adolescence left a lingering influence on his art. The oppression of fascism, of capitalistic selfishness, bigotry and sexual violence and anti-Semitism and homophobia — these horrors permeate his films, albeit sometimes abstractly, and often comically. His new film, Elle, his first full-length feature in a decade, and his first in French, is a pitch-black comedy of bourgeois manners, starring Isabelle Huppert as a rape survivor. An exhaustive retrospective of Verhoeven's work, called "Total Verhoeven," is playing at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.
We talked to Verhoeven while he was here for "Elle"'s appearance at the New York Film Festival.
How are you enjoying New York?
It's really a big city, yeah? It has something, when you leave the airport, especially in the evening, when you approach the city and cross the river and all that stuff... it's just a phenomenal view, but it's also a bit threatening, yeah? Like, I remember the first time I saw New York, I mean 30 years ago, and I'm going, "My God, this is like going into Fritz Lang's "Metropolis." It looks like that. You know that film? Very German expressionist movie. In fact, the costume of RoboCop is a male version of the "Metropolis" robot character, who is a female in that movie. A female robot.
Are you concerned that American viewers will misunderstand or ignore the humor in the film, especially in light of Donald Trump and rape culture? It's a very funny movie.
Well, yeah, it's very funny. The New York audience that saw the film yesterday [the New York Film Festival Press screening] was interesting to compare because I went to Toronto, I went to Spain, and London, and Paris. I mean, the reactions of the audience here during the funny parts, I noticed immediately, are more like the French. The reactions in Cannes to the funny details, certainly with the baby and all that stuff, the reactions of the audience in New York were really comparable to Cannes. Much more like Cannes than Holland or Belgium or even London, where they're much more restrained. Here, they picked up on the humor and laughed. They laughed at the first funny element, when the son gives [Huppert] the photograph of the pregnant girlfriend, and he puts it on the little table, and basically she [Verhoeven picks up my phone and hides it behind a jar of jelly beans] hides it. In London, no one laughed. Here, people started to laugh.
The marketing is suggesting that this is an erotic thriller, like "Basic Instinct," but it's not erotic or a thriller.
It's not! I don't know why, you have to ask [distributor] Sony Classics about that. I think the Hollywood Reporter called it "a rape comedy," which is... I don't know. Rape-slash-comedy.
But the rape scenes are not funny.
They're very serious! The idea, my idea, was basically to avoid genre. There was no possibility to put it in any genre. You could have pushed it into the thriller genre, if you want, but if you look at the Christmas dinner scene, which is 60 minutes into the movie, the thriller is gone! For 12, 13 minutes there's nothing about a thriller there. At all. There's no threat of death — just people. Realizing that, I felt that to make it a thriller, to make the third act about revenge, would have made it an American movie. It's a very French movie. I compared it myself — without copying of course — but I compared the lack of genre, the combination of comedy, tragedy, cruelty, to a movie I admire very much, the 1938 noir called "The Rules of the Game." It has all these elements, but it doesn't say it’s this or that. There's this, then there's that, and there's this and there's that. Life has no genre, I say. From early morning to late evening, life goes through a lot of genres! I think that was the beauty of the project. It's all the genres of life without favoring any of them. I used them all.