The case of Paul Verhoeven remains open. After 35 years and more than a dozen films, the critical stand on the Dutch filmmaker should have by now solidified one way or another, yet, as with fellow provocateur Brian De Palma, to bring up his name in cinephile circles is still a volatile matter. The way Showgirls can be argued with equal fervor as slashing masterwork or Worst Movie Evah is only the tip of Verhoeven's divisiveness; what keeps Basic Instinct and Starship Troopers from being recognized by so many "serious" critics as the masterly works they are, however, isn't so much their status as Hollywood genre exercises as their unabashedly frenzied tone -- the pervasive hysteria on the screen keeps goading reviewers into asking, "Is he serious?" Verhoeven is serious, all right, and never more serious than when dealing with religion. The visions of ecstasy and hellfire in The Fourth Man are too visceral to be whittled down into the sly joke the director intended to play on subtext-digging critics, while underneath the medieval raping, pillaging, and slobbering of Flesh & Blood are bursts of Christian imagery as rigorous as Bresson's in Lancelot du Lac. Similarly, the Black Book of the title of his new film refers to incriminating notes kept during the Nazi invasion of the Netherlands in WWII, though it could also be the Bible the Jewish heroine (Carice van Houten) has to recite from in order to get dinner while hiding with a Christian family. Her recital is the first performance we see her giving in order to stay alive; she fashions a cross in her porridge with syrup and vanquishes it by stirring the plate.
Faith in survival informs the covert Old Testament narrative. It opens in Israel in 1956, where a "Holy Land Tours" bus occasions an awkward reunion between van Houten and a wartime acquaintance (Halina Reijn) at a kibbutz; the estranged friends exchange shaloms, van Houten sits near the water and remembers the tale. No less than for the character, Black Book is a return home for the director, going back to Dutch soil with screenwriter Gerard Soeteman after two decades in Hollywood, a return reflected in a mix of wartime intrigue and a woman's use of her sexuality that suggests two of Verhoeven's early hits, Soldier of Fortune and Keetje Tippel. A spunky former chanteuse, van Houten is on the run after her rural sanctuary is razed by a German bomber; the Netherlands in 1944 is a dangerous place, she's advised to lose her trusting nature not long before she survives the SS massacre that claims her family. She joins the resistance, where her role is laid out: infiltrating the Nazi world by seducing a handsome Gestapo officer (Sebastian Koch). She prepares for the part of Aryan siren by bleaching her hair (and pubes) blonde, yet Koch spots her immediately as a Jewess, if not as a Mata Hari. He's a sensitive soul, however, fond of stamps and bent on reducing the violent clashes between German invaders and local "terrorists;" he takes his vivacious new flame to a Nazi party (she sings to the hearty accompaniment of the swine who machine-gunned her parents), then to his luxurious boudoir ("from the capitalists we threw out").
Just when it looks like Verhoeven might settle for genteel period re-creation, in comes an image of the perky heroine upchucking into a toilet, followed by the Nazi villain wobbling in (blobby and naked, natch) for a standing-up fuck. Despite moments of such luminous vulgarity, however, the movie is handled with the classy caution that seems to inevitably paralyze Oscar-baiting historical epics. The carnal impulses propelling van Houten's character are closer to the life force of Monique van de Ven than to the predatory machinations of Renée Soutendijk and Sharon Stone, yet of all of Verhoeven's women she's the one with the fuzziest basic instincts. Van Houten is a ripe, vivid actress, lit and caressed by the camera like a genuine old-school star, but the film sketches her uncomplicatedly as an indomitable survivor, occasionally steering her to touchingly absurd extremes (injected with a lethal dose of insulin, she stuffs herself with chocolate and walks off the balcony) while keeping her safely within the genre's circumscribed conventions. Verhoeven finds grace in rot, so it's telling that his admiration for his fierce heroine goes side by side with his desire to soil her satiny skin, a desire finally realized when van Houten suffers torrents of shit poured on her during the days after the liberation. Liberated also is the filmmaker, who by then can loosen up the morals and find the inferno under the waving flags of postwar freedom -- the brutality and suffering present on both sides of the conflict provide a corrective to the rest of the story's rigid lines, along with the director's own closet humanism ("everybody has unknown depths," a creep crows). Mostly, however, it's the last thing a Verhoeven film should be: tasteful.
If Black Book suggests that Rob Zombie should just make that Ilsa the Were-Bitch of the S.S. epic he promised in Grindhouse, Hot Fuzz suggests that the breathless wit Edgar Wright injected into his own mock-trailer was no accident. Wright's follow-up to Shaun of the Dead draws humor out of quicksilver speed, with an opening montage (supercop Simon Pegg embarrassing the rest of the London force with his efficiency) that just about takes the whiplash of The Departed to town. The bulk of the picture's satirical potshots is a far less illustrious bunch of police operas, however, namely the testosterone overdoses of the Michael Bay-Jerry Bruckheimer school of mind-melting action (Bad Boys II is a central pillar, Lethal Weapon and Point Break also figure prominently). Transplanted to "statistically the safest village in the country" (the director's hometown of Wells), Pegg notices gory "accidents" cracking the hamlet's placid surfaces and starts his own investigation, helped by an oafish local (Nick Frost) whose brain is studded with shrapnel from Hollywood blockbusters. The nutty climax transforms kinetic stylistics from Tony Scott and John Woo into play, yet, for all the amplified rifle-cocking, the movie is as gently British as The Lavender Hill Mob or Wallace & Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit -- there's real fondness not just for the crash-a-tons being referenced, but also for a homey, practically imaginary England that, filled as it is with buried skeletons, has more life than Shaun's literally zombified London. Wright overplays his hand, but I'll gladly forgive him anything for remembering Billie Whitelaw, and giving her a machine-gun.
Hot Fuzz is being sold as a parody, though it fortunately steers clear of the subgenre's nudging, MST3K-type derision. Similarly, Offside is a advertised as a crowd-pleasing comedy, yet we are never allowed to forget the harsh injustices that provide the basis for its humor. (After all, what bigger torture is there for a soccer fan than to be kept away from the big game playing just out of reach?) Jafar Panahi's film is a populist shaggy tale next to The Mirror or The Circle, but his political concerns are no less tough, made possibly even more pointed here by the way the "gender apartheid" starkly examined in the Iranian director's earlier works is shown to extend casually to the simple enjoyment of a sports event. A decisive soccer match is played between Iran and Bahrain in Tehran, and, forbidden by law to attend the game, women sneak in disguised as men; caught, they're kept in a gated pen outside the stadium walls, watched over by complaining guards and teased by the cheers of the crowd inside. Just as baffled by the law as their captives, the guards deduce it's for their own good: the fellas will curse if their team loses, someone explains; "We promise not the listen," one of the gals shoots back. Offside tempers Crimson Gold's time-bomb dread with an atmosphere of airy defiance gradually sliding into celebration, though the lighter mood is no reason for Panahi to ditch his masterly long takes and use of space -- both are superbly present as one of the girls is escorted to the men's restroom, a funny-harrowing passage capped by the only glimpse of the stadium's grassy field, as startling a vision as the jubilant fireworks that by the end posit an exhilarating, ephemeral sense of cultural inclusiveness.
Reviewed May 4, 2007.