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Paul Verhoeven vs. Hollywood’s basic instincts

If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result, then Hollywood should have been committed long ago. And yet, it takes a special sort of show-business crazy to explain how the industry has treated Paul Verhoeven.

When the Dutch director was an active member of the business, his work was either dismissed as ultra-violent genre pap (RoboCop, Total Recall) or vile aberrations that should be expunged from the record (Basic Instinct, Showgirls). And when the filmmaker finally stopped working for the studios, well, they just turned around and remade his movies, resulting in projects so toothless that even the least discerning filmgoer would struggle to remember them (the Joel Kinnaman-starring RoboCop, the Colin Farrell-led Total Recall – yes, these exist!).

Even today, the madness persists, with Sony last week announcing a reboot of Verhoeven's Starship Troopers – though certainly minus any of the satirical venom or fetishistic violence or anything of interest that the director originally brought to the project.

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But that is all fine, really, Paul Verhoeven is doing great – even if his new film, Elle, isn't quite the Hollywood comeback he originally designed.

"Unfortunately, no one wanted to touch it. We went through five, six A-class American actresses, and it was a no, no, no – a no on financing, a no on the protagonist," said the director this past September, when he brought the French-language Elle to the Toronto International Film Festival (the film opens Nov. 18 in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal). "So ultimately, after two months of trying with Americans, we said we're on the wrong road. This isn't going to work."

Perhaps not the biggest surprise – even discounting Verhoeven's involvement. Adapted from the French novel Oh… by Philippe Djian, Elle is a difficult project to embrace: a "rape-revenge" drama that's not all that much concerned with retribution, and one that refuses to neatly divide its characters into heroes and villains.

Although Elle's narrative beats will be familiar to American filmgoers – the steely female lead, the post-traumatic stress of a sexual assault's aftermath – the story twists itself into bold, even dangerous corners, resulting in a queasy, but engaging, cinematic provocation. Hollywood simply wouldn't know what to do with it.

"We realized, maybe too late, that so-called controversial aspects of the movie were unacceptable for American actors," says Verhoeven, 78, with a shrug. "But that led us to her."

"Her" being Isabelle Huppert, the 63-year-old French actress who is enjoying a banner year, in no small part due to her fearless performance in Elle. Playing Michele, a video-game executive who encounters (and engenders) all sorts of chaos after being raped in her Paris flat, Huppert delivers an incendiary performance that edges the film into the realm of an all-time classic – a fact that Verhoeven is quick to admit as a near-missed opportunity.

"She wanted to do the movie before I was involved, but then I came aboard and thought this had American potential. When we failed, of course, we were then humiliated and I said, 'Sorry, we took the wrong road, but do you still want to do it?'" Verhoeven says. "She immediately said yes.

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"Working with her was very easy, incredibly easy, because we didn't have to discuss anything," Verhoeven continues. "The colour of her hair, the clothes, how to choreograph the rape scene, yes, but we never talked about character, because she had an absolute affinity for the part. She makes a lot of decisions that for the audience are extraordinary to accept, but it works."

So much so that Huppert is being touted as a possible Academy Awards contender – which might lead to Verhoeven himself being placed on the Oscar ballot, a scenario that seemed impossible back when Showgirls bombed just over two decades ago. Then again, the director has been enjoying a critical reappraisal as of late, partly thanks to Adam Nayman's 2014 book It Doesn't Suck: Showgirls and partly due to audiences revisiting Verhoeven's earlier works after enduring watered-down remakes.

"It's about time!" the director says with a laugh. "I was not sure when that would happen. When Showgirls came out, I remember talking to journalists who said it would be seen differently in the future, but then with all the critics attacking it, you start believing maybe that's what it actually is. It's a pleasant surprise. Even with Starship Troopers, there is much more insight in that which is being discussed today. We were trying to seduce the audience and show them that their heroes, they are fascists – I thought I expressed that enough with Doogie Howser's character dressed in an SS uniform. I thought that was clear! But maybe it was not."

And though Verhoeven remains cynical of Hollywood's current crop of blockbusters – "I think they are simplified, the layering is gone – when you get to the level of Batman v Superman, I don't see any thought, or philosophy, or vision" – he remains open to again working within the system, if the system will let him.

"Immediately! That's why I follow the films, why I want to know what is possible with special effects, even if what is possible is not necessarily what you should do," he says. "I'm working on a project right now that's not really special-effects driven at all, more of a detective thriller. Perhaps once it would have cost $40-million. Now, I'm hoping for $20-million. We'll see."

Elle opens Nov. 18 in Toronto,Vancouver and Montreal

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About the Author

Barry Hertz is the deputy arts editor and film editor for The Globe and Mail. He previously served as the Executive Producer of Features for the National Post, and was a manager and writer at Maclean’s before that. His arts and culture writing has also been featured in several publications, including Reader’s Digest and NOW Magazine. More

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