If there were ever a dictionary of cinema, Paul Verhoeven's name would be the first to appear under 'provocative'. From his early Dutch films to mega-budget blockbusters and the recent 'Elle' (2016), Verhoeven has attracted as much controversy as he has acclaim.
His debut 'Business is Business (1971), about a prostitute's antics, was a domestic success but attracted the ire of moral groups. Further outrage surrounded 'Turkish Delight' (1973), the first of many collaborations between the filmmaker and actor Rutger Hauer. An account of a sexually adventurous but destructive relationship, the film's explicitness was balanced out by an emotionally satisfying denouement. It was nominated for an Academy Award. If budgetary restrictions prevented Verhoeven from fully realising his ambitions with the adaptation 'Katie Tippel' (1975), the Second World War drama 'Soldier of Orange' (1977) announced the arrival of a major talent. Verhoeven would return to the same conflict in 2006 with the excellent 'Black Book'.
'Spetters' (1980) ranks alongside 'Basic Instinct' (1992) and 'Showgirls' (1995) as Verhoeven's most controversial work. But where the latter films have fared better ('Showgirls' in particular is now seen – by some – as a knowing, ironic masterpiece of exploitative excess), 'Spetters' remains an uncomfortable watch. Critics and audiences were kinder to 'The Fourth Man' (1983), the last Dutch film Verhoeven made before moving to Hollywood. A psycho-thriller whose religious allegory oozes out of every scene, it highlights the director's penchant for excess, which would only magnify with his arrival in America. If 'Flesh and Blood' (1985) and 'Hollow Man' (2000) are outliers in Verhoeven's work, featuring great moments but uneven as a whole, his five other Hollywood films are extraordinary for their daring, explicitness and bombast. They are also brilliant dissections of American culture. Alongside the swagger of 'Showgirls', 'Basic Instinct' amped up the sex and violence of Joe Esterhaus' screenplay, its steely look and controversial engagement with gender politics making it one of the key films of the 1990s. While 'Robocop' (1987), 'Total Recall' (1991) and 'Starship Troopers' (1997), all brilliant satires set in future police states, remain the high-point of mainstream Hollywood sci-fi cinema. And like Verhoeven's WWII dramas, their skirting the fringes of fascism draws upon the director's own experiences of the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands.
Verhoeven's welcome return to the cinema with 'Elle' showed the director has lost none of his touch in engaging with gender politics head-on. And in Isabelle Huppert he found an actor just as daring in front of the camera as he has often been behind it.