The Dutch director Paul Verhoeven is a practiced provocateur, that’s certain. The perennial question, though, is whether he’s a purveyor of glossy exploitation films or a sly social satirist. His button-pushing French-language hit, Elle, lends itself to both readings, even if (like me) you credit the film as a study of a woman of a certain age (a cruelly kind Isabelle Huppert) grappling with her evolving -- though not waning -- sexual power.
This is an excellent time to revisit and reconsider Verhoeven’s oeuvre, as it’s likely that enormous pressure will be brought to bear in the coming weeks, months and years against outspoken, over-the-top cultural statements.
While that may or may not have been the motivation for Midnites for Maniacs impresario Jesse Hawthorne Ficks to compile A Genuine Tribute to the Films of Paul Verhoeven, screening at the Roxie Friday through Sunday, Jan. 13–15, I do know that Ficks is a master of discerning and interpreting the underlying social commentary in broad mainstream movies.
And there’s plenty to unpack in Friday’s double bill of Total Recall and Basic Instinct (which provoked protests both while it was shooting in San Francisco in 1991 and after it opened), Saturday’s triple feature of Robocop, Showgirls and a surprise early Verhoeven title and Sunday’s pairing of Spetters (ditto, 1980) and Starship Troopers.
Verhoeven’s movies combine bravado and bravery in ways that can be annoying as well as exhilarating, but they’re never boring. Let’s just call him a thinking person’s pulp filmmaker, and leave it at that.