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Paul Verhoeven Talks About ‘Elle’ and the ‘Daily Threat’ of Rape

We talk with the director of Elle about Donald Trump, violence against women, and where he thinks the country is heading.
Photo courtesy of Elle

In the cataclysmic shitstorm that is life in America right now, it's hard not to think about much else other than the future of this country. When I spoke with director Paul Verhoeven over the phone the morning after the election, it was consuming his mind, too. "I'm scared," he admitted. "In all honesty, I have the feeling that there is a big danger."

Danger is an integral element of Verhoeven's varied filmography, which ranges from allegorical action movies (RoboCop, Total Recall) to erotic dramas (Basic Instinct, Showgirls). He's also proved a lacerating satirist of America's ongoing military fetishization (Starship Troopers). In his most recent film, Elle, the Dutch auteur grounds his film in Paris, where a veritable businesswoman (Isabelle Huppert) finds herself hunting down the man who raped her.


As is the case with most of Verhoeven's work, his characters are more complex than they first appear. Huppert delivers an inimitable performance—something Verhoeven suggested when he said to me, "No American actress would ever take on such an amoral movie."

The amorality of Elle is something we discussed in conversation, along with feminism, sexual violence in contemporary cinema, and where Verhoeven thinks we're headed with Trump at the helm.

VICE: Did you wake up this morning OK?
Paul Verhoeven: I waited till the news came in that Hillary called Trump, and then I saw Trump arriving and talking and then I went to bed. I went to bed knowing what tragedy is unfolding here.

How do you feel about it?
Bad. Depressed. Dangerous. My daughter called me from the East coast and was completely in tears. She was not the only one. Some people were tearful during Hillary's concession speech. In all honesty, I have the feeling that there is a big danger. I'm scared.

Are you going to make a film about now?
It would be better to make [a film] about something in the past, [rather] than immediately jumping on this. You cannot judge it yet. When you're hit in your gut, you should abstain from immediately trying to translate that in art or expression. I think you have to wait and get more distance before you can attack something like what happened yesterday. It's strange, of course, that Starship Troopers is already describing a fascist utopia.


Your films have had a prescience to them. Do you think your work is able to forecast in part because you're not American?
Because I'm not American—despite living here for 30 years—I have a certain lack of understanding of the US. I didn't grow up here. On the other hand, because of the distance, I'm more inclined to look at the US more objectively, because I'm on the sideline, and because I don't completely identify with the situation. I keep my European view.

What you're saying is, since you're not entirely part of the system, it's easier for you to analyze as an outsider.
Probably, but there will be elements that I miss anyhow because of not being in the USA. It's an advantage and disadvantage. On Starship Troopers, Edward Neumeier and I were not looking at Buenos Aires. We were looking at the US.

That was evident. In thinking about your latest film, you have a character that says, "It's not about the quality of work. It's about a certain demographic." It feels like you—and, in turn, your art—lives inside that quote.
It's not that you make these movies to be successful. You hope they're successful enough so that you can make the next movie. If you make three flops in a row, then you're in 10 years of Hollywood prison. You're very aware, as a filmmaker, that film is not only art. It's an economy. Painting doesn't need money. A composer only needs a pencil and paper. For film, you need ten, twenty, thirty, two hundred million dollars. You're working in a compromise between economy and art. I've always been aware of that. But if you look at wonderful movies, like Lawrence of Arabia, there is a possibility to combine these two elements. You could reach an audience and still tell the people something that isn't completely empty.


Paul Verhoeven and Isabelle Huppert

How do you define success for yourself?
I would say, ten years later, looking at the movie and seeing if it still works or not. When I re-see movies—especially in these retrospectives—I see certain movies where time has not destroyed them. That's true of Lawrence of Arabia, La Dolce Vita, and the films of Charlie Chaplin. If it stands time, like Mozart, that's the most satisfying thing about your work—that it's still meaningful.

You said in a recent interview, "Any argument about filmmaking or art is lost." Do you feel like you've made any art in the last two decades?
I've been trying! Elle is certainly an attempt to be artistic. It's not trying to seduce the audience to like it. It's controversial. It's a very precise expression of what art should be. Even Black Book has these elements—although that may be more in the direction of entertainment. Do I think Hollow Man falls into that category of art? No. I won't say Hollow Man is as hollow as the movie says, but it's certainly, for me, much further away from art than RoboCop. In Hollow Man, I did not succeed.

You noted earlier the "controversial" elements of your films, which are generally your depictions of violence against women.
Violence against women? [laughs] There's also violence against men, to be honest.

Certainly, but perhaps the controversy is about the fact that it's coming from the vantage point of a man.
OK. Well sure. 1,900 rapes a day, isn't it? In the United States. There is a rape every minute.


Do you think there's a reason in your filmmaking that you continue circling back to this subject?
No, not really. This was a novel, the rape simulation. They were written in the book, and I chose that book. That's my responsibility. I didn't invent it, but I chose that book. I think in our lives, rape, especially for women, that it's a daily threat. More so than guns or traffic accidents. So being aware of the violence in the universe—we're not talking about Earth, we're talking about the whole universe being filled with destruction. Galaxies eating itself up. The scale of destruction in this universe is way, way beyond what we can imagine. This whole universe is based on continuous destruction. Although there is, of course, continuous birth and construction. But the destruction level is staggering. If you look at movies—cars exploding, etc.—our love for destruction is undeniable. To bring that forward is as fundamental as sexuality.

Do you consider yourself a feminist?
No, not the way you say it. I express myself through women better than through men. I'm more at ease with women than with men. I trust myself with women much more than I trust myself with men. I feel at ease with every woman, while with man there is this tension. In that respect, for me, women are extremely important in my life. If that's a feminist…OK. I feel women are fully equal, and sometimes superior.

Are there women filmmakers who have inspired you?
No, I don't know that really well. Really, recently, I've only been inspired by Michael Haneke. When I was younger, there were people in France. When I look at movies I don't think too much about whether the director is male or female. I don't care. I've not been paying attention to that.


We were talking about the sexual violence in film, which is something American cinema has routinely shied away from.
Because it immediately gives you an R-rating, doesn't it? The studios are avoiding R-ratings as much as possible. It will all go to PG.

But do you think that shifting rating—from R to PG-13—is just as much about the shifting ideals of American culture?
There is clearly a desire for studios to make PG and PG-13. It's clear. It has a lot to do with avoiding controversy, or the audience may be walking out. That audiences would be offended, disturbed. That possibility is eliminated as much as possible, while the world is extremely disturbing, if you look around. If you look at the front page—or you open the front page and look inside—it's about disturbance, it's about negativity, it's about what goes wrong, explosions, where people are disagreeing and fighting with each other. The amount of violence in this world is on the front page and most of the pages of any newspaper, including The New York Times. There's a desire on the media side to bring you bad news. You can compare now to the 30s, when they decided when democracy was old-fashioned and should be thrown out the window. It is now rampant again. To become anti-democratic again. To think democracy is not the solution.

You think that's where we're headed?
We're certainly headed towards that at the moment. That doesn't mean we're headed toward World War III, but we're flirting with that.

Last question here. Trump was won. He is going to be President. You are 78, and I assume have more filmmaking in you. What do you think your next couple of years will look like?
There's always an escape to France, right?

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