Tag Archives: Paul Verhoeven

Sister Act


by Hope Madden

In 17th Century Italy, a nun challenged the church as well as social and sexual norms, rallying a town around her. Was she a charlatan? Was she a saint? Regardless, she seems to be a fascinating image of early feminism. You’ll have to imagine that yourself, though, because her story has been brought to the screen by Paul Verhoeven, which means her story is now soft-core porn.

Who would have thought that the director behind Showgirls would eventually make a hot lesbian nun movie? I mean, besides everyone.

Verhoeven challenged preconceptions about himself as a filmmaker (mine, anyway) in 2012 when he released the most discombobulating rape-revenge thriller, Elle. A masterstroke of a performance by Isabelle Huppert certainly helped.

With Benedetta, Verhoeven takes another shot at ogling the female form inside a context that suggests that ogling is really empowering.

Benedetta (Virginie Efira) was dedicated to the Virgin Mary as a young child by her wealthy father and has been at the convent since she was 10. She’s content, a devoted disciple. As an adult, though, the sexual awakening triggered by new novice Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia) coincides with ecstatic visions of both righteous and demonic leanings.

Is Benedetta crying out for attention and power, or is something supernatural truly afoot?

That right there — the question of the source of these visions, whether the result of a lust for power, true divine intervention, or undiagnosed schizophrenia — might have given Verhoeven’s film a cogent central conflict.

Naturally, his interest is in the sexual awakening.

Which is fine, if uninspired. You might be surprised by how many films you can find that depict shockingly attractive sisters engaging in nun-on-nun action. (I recommend Alucarda.)

At well over two hours, the film feels remarkably self-indulgent. There are the requisite nods toward the corruption of the church, but Verhoeven, who co-wrote an adaptation of Judith Brown’s book with David Birke, earns points for sidestepping the demonizing of the Mother Superior and the other nuns.

Instead, the always luminous Charlotte Rampling portrays Mother Superior as a wise, graceful and respectable businesswoman working within a profoundly misogynistic system. Scenes between Rampling and Lambert Wilson, as the ambitious and crooked head of the regional church, spark with wit and cynicism.

Still, the director cannot pass up the opportunity to fetishize an act of church-sanctioned torture. One step up, two steps back and all that.

If you’re longing for a film about women and the historical, hysterical afflictions they faced because they were women, but you really miss seeing these lessons from a leeringly male perspective, I have a hard time imagining a film that better suits your mood than Benedetta.



by Hope Madden

Elle is a flummoxing, aggravating, possibly masterful piece of filmmaking that will leave you reeling.

A misanthropic tale with a complex – even befuddling – moral core, the film explores the aftermath of a brutal rape.

It opens – before we even see an image – on the sounds of the assault. Michele Leblanc (a beyond-magnificent Isabelle Huppert), a prosperous video game developer, is being attacked by a masked figure who’s broken in.

No matter what you expect to happen next, the only thing you can predict is that clichés will be upended.

The storyline offers an almost endless look at complicated gender politics, systemic misogyny and rape culture. As Michele goads the mostly-male team working on the firm’s latest beta game that the tentacle penetration of a medieval maiden is not orgasmic enough, the film further complicates – well – everything.

Another element tangling the viewing experience is the fact that the creative team behind the film is entirely male: director Paul Verhoeven, novelist Philippe Djian, and screenwriter David Burke – who, interestingly, specializes in true-life horror films, often succeeding in humanizing the serial killer (Dahmer, Gacy).

To articulate the film’s frustrating turns would be to give away far more than is appropriate. Suffice it to say, the deeply flawed heroine makes baffling choices in a story chastising a culture that promotes rape while simultaneously encouraging rape fantasy.

Or does it?

Verhoeven’s resume may taint this perception. A provocateur always, his latest effort is his most dialed down and intelligent. And yet, this same director managed to turn a Holocaust interrogation into a scene from Flashdance in his 2016 film Black Book.

There is basically nothing he cannot reframe to objectify women – and yet, there is not one sexual act in this film that is played for titillation.

It is quite possible that Huppert is the entire reason Elle works – and God help me, it does.

Huppert understands this character’s damaging backstory – information allowed the audience in slow bursts – and captures the icy resilience it instilled. Her Michele is a restrained narcissist, a pragmatic survivor at odds with expectations – unlikeable but hard to root against. Above all things, she is unpredictable, but in Huppert’s hands, every decision – no matter how bizarre or offensive – feels utterly natural.

I cannot imagine this film surviving without Huppert in the lead role, but with her as the central conundrum in Verhoeven’s indecipherable set of intentions, Elle leaves a mark.