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Paul Verhoeven’s latest film Benedetta shows that the 83-year-old director remains as outrageous as ever. By Annabel Brady-Brown.

Director Paul Verhoeven

Paul Verhoeven.
Paul Verhoeven.
Credit: Lex de Meester

Hot nuns, hissing serpents, a horny Jesus: in a career full of provocations, Paul Verhoeven is at it again. After emerging from the wilderness with his widely praised Isabelle Huppert vehicle Elle (2016), the 83-year-old director returns with Benedetta, a film that ticks through his key obsessions – sex, power, madness, anti-authoritarianism and religion – with schoolboy delight.

Verhoeven’s irony-soaked science fiction satires RoboCop (1987), Total Recall (1990) and Starship Troopers (1997), together with the Vegas extravaganza Showgirls (1995) – a movie so unsubtle most critics completely missed the joke – hail from something of a Golden Age for auteur-driven blockbusters. It’s a mode of high-concept popcorn filmmaking that is near unthinkable in today’s franchise-plagued landscape.

It was an era when Verhoeven’s erotic thriller Basic Instinct (1992) could rule the box office, where a sapphic Sharon Stone might uncross her legs and shock multiplexes across America, unleashing a vision of sexual power that has rarely been matched since. In retrospect, it’s a wonder he got away with so much for so long.

These days Verhoeven seems more bemused than annoyed about all the fuss. “There is this shame about sexuality, especially today,” he says matter-of-factly in his musical Dutch accent, speaking via Zoom from his Los Angeles home. “It’s even more, let’s say, ‘forbidden’ to show sexuality than when we did, for example, Basic Instinct – and there was a lot of nudity and sexuality there.

“In the United States [the response] has transformed into ‘Why do you want to show sex?’ The normal answer would be that sexuality is part of life – that people shoot each other seems much worse to me. But it’s like there is a code now, there has to be some reason. You have to prove that in this case [showing] sexuality was unavoidable.”

This move towards what Verhoeven dubs “puritanism” has meant that the sex scene – a fixture of American cinema in its ’90s heyday – is quietly disappearing from mainstream Hollywood. “I think we are hiding that we are animals,” says the avowed Darwinist. “But we don’t want to hear that. That, with sexuality and with pooping, it goes in and it goes out, ja?” he says, grinning.

“What goes in and what goes out” could work as a glib summation of Benedetta’s antics. A fart joke sets the playful tone early. A custom-made dildo is used by two 17th-century nuns, Benedetta (Virginie Efira) and Bartolomea (Daphné Patakia), who engage in a love affair inside a Tuscan convent, hidden away from the hawk-eyed Mother Superior (Charlotte Rampling, doubling down on her sinister matriarch in Dune).

All the women are gutsy, but the wide-eyed Bartolomea has a childish, up-for-anything energy that’s particularly infectious. Patakia’s audition “gave me a clue to the film”, Verhoeven says. “She did it in such a light way that I thought, ‘The movie should be that way!’ ”

Benedetta was shot in Italy in 2018, with cinematographer Jeanne Lapoirie using sun filtered through stained-glass windows to illuminate the nun’s ascetic life. Although they didn’t use intimacy co-ordinators on set – Verhoeven hadn’t heard of the role at the time – the sex scenes were heavily storyboarded and given to the actors in advance, so that any problems could be flagged. Both leads have proudly supported the film.

As ever, Verhoeven’s lurid set-ups are grounded in arcane research that gives his crass and cartoonish visions a baroque depth, much like the Dutch Renaissance paintings he loves. A particular favourite of his is Hieronymus Bosch’s The Wayfarer, which features, buried deep in the background, a man pissing against the wall.

For Benedetta, he adapted a slim 1986 book by the scholar Judith C. Brown titled Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy. It chronicles the real-life Benedetta Carlini (1590-1661), whose supernatural visions and experience of the stigmata saw her ascend the ranks of a Theatines convent in Pescia, before she was twice put on trial for faking divine visions.

The book was given to Verhoeven about six years ago by Gerard Soeteman, Verhoeven’s on-again off-again Dutch scriptwriter, who saw the story as “a woman gathering power in a male society”. “He said this could be a movie,” he says. “And I agreed.”

The material’s appeal is clear: objectified women seizing opportunities and agency is one of the director’s pet themes, explored in the social-climbing Keetje Tippel (1975); the World War II-era drama Black Book (2006), about a Jewish singer on the run who falls for a Nazi; and the much-excoriated Showgirls. Reclaimed as a cult film by a new generation, Showgirls was branded unpardonable sleaze when it was released, though its few apologists included the filmmaker Jacques Rivette, who recognised it was “about surviving in a world populated by assholes, and that’s Verhoeven’s philosophy”. This makes extra sense when you remember Verhoeven was raised in Nazi-occupied the Netherlands.

The screenwriting collaboration with Soeteman fizzled out because Verhoeven was more taken by the historical value of Brown’s book. Benedetta’s trial gives direct testaments of a lesbian relationship at a time when such a thing was inconceivable for many in Western society, especially the Catholic Church. “For me, yes, it was a woman that wanted power, but it was power that she would use to have an affair with the other nun.”

When Benedetta is elected abbess, she escapes the prying eyes of the dormitory, he explains. “She had her own room and could close it, and do with Bartolomea whatever she wanted. That was my vision of the book,” he says. A room of one’s own, if you like.

Elle writer David Birke was eventually brought on for a final script that artfully balances both threads, achieving a giddy cynicism that is often quietly hilarious. “Your worst enemy is your body. Best not to feel at home in it,” says one of the nuns, offering an early lesson in shame. This line can also be read as a potshot aimed at whoever was responsible for the now-infamous MS Paint bras drawn onto the topless Vegas club dancers in the television version of Showgirls.

The clerical power games play out as a dance of backstabbings, betrayals, snide comments and about-faces. Rampling is particularly committed, her iconic cheek muscles twitching with Machiavellian intent. She barely cocks an eyebrow when she visits the Nuncio’s (Lambert Wilson) Florence palace and finds his attendant servants heavily pregnant, most certainly by him – a Boschian detail if ever there was one.

Against the mother superior’s weaselry, Benedetta’s expression is majestically poker-faced. Even when Jesus starts speaking through her in a demonic howl, it’s unclear whether it’s an act or if she really does believe he is acting through her. “It leaves a lot of room for ambiguity,” Verhoeven adds. “I didn’t want to say it’s all fake. I think that’s boring. I felt it should leave a little bit to the audience to think.”

Efira’s small role as Huppert’s pious neighbour in Elle impressed Verhoeven – especially late in the film where it’s revealed she’s always been aware of what’s happening, and “she thanks Isabelle Huppert for letting her husband have some sadomasochistic fun”. “When this project came on the table, I never thought about anybody else,” he says. “I believed her so much. If she can do that, she can also do Benedetta.”

Long before the term “post-truth” was coined, Verhoeven’s films roamed unsettling halls of mirrors. Basic Instinct, RoboCop and Total Recall form what he calls his “psychosis trilogy”. Each entertains parallel interpretations of reality that may or may not be true: is Sharon Stone or Jeanne Tripplehorn the ice pick-wielding murderer? Is Peter Weller’s human cop still alive inside the law-enforcement machine? Was Mars just all Arnold Schwarzenegger’s delusional dream?

Verhoeven’s ambivalence is deep-rooted. Long before he immersed himself in the grotesque spectacle of American media, which he binged with fascinated horror after relocating from the Netherlands in the mid-1980s, Verhoeven had felt his grip on reality slipping in his 20s during a screening of King Kong (1933), as the gorilla transformed before his eyes into “an avenging angel from the Old Testament”. His cosmic world view is also underpinned by his studies, having completed a PhD on Einstein’s theory of general relativity. As he said during an interview at last year’s New York Film Festival, where Benedetta was picketed by Catholic organisations, “The only thing that is really true is mathematics.”

And yet for all his rational scepticism, Verhoeven is deeply sympathetic to non-rational worlds. As a student in Leiden, he was a Surrealist painter, intrigued by UFOs and occult phenomena, and during a crisis point in his 20s, he found Jesus for a few weeks. He recounts the story, explaining that his future wife, Martine, was unhappily pregnant – abortion was still illegal in the Netherlands. He was convinced he would have to give up filmmaking and get a real job, when a churchgoer handed him a flyer that read: “If you are looking for God…”

“I fled to a Pentecostal community … I wanted Jesus to save me – from the baby, perhaps you could say,” he says with a wry smile. “When the preacher said, ‘Thank you, Jesus, for being with us tonight. We know you’re here, we feel you’re here’, I felt that, also … I was so overwhelmed by the experience. That went on for two, three weeks.”

This visceral experience made a profound and lasting impression. It’s in the biblical imagery that recurs throughout his cinema: think of RoboCop, whom Verhoeven calls “an American Jesus”, walking on water during the film’s final showdown. Even though Verhoeven’s faith dissolved as quickly as it had materialised, it ignited a fascination with “Jesus the man” that persists to this day. A member of a group called the Jesus Seminar, Verhoeven has filled his house with hundreds of books on Christ, including Jesus of Nazareth, his own secular revision of the Gospels. And he has spent decades trying to get his passion project Jesus biopic made, without success.

The closest he has come yet is Benedetta, albeit shot on a fraction of the budgets he once commanded in Hollywood. Benedetta’s divine visions – vicious serpents and a seductive Jesus who preaches “Wherever I am, there can be no shame” all adapted from Brown’s book – are rendered in CGI that plays into their camp ridiculousness. Next to the state-of-the-art alien bugs that terrorise Starship Troopers, for example, they look a little cheap.

And yet, at a point in time when fundamentally strange and original films are increasingly thin on the ground and many once-vaunted auteurs struggle to get work made, Benedetta’s mere existence seems like a miracle.

When I ask Verhoeven how he sees the pop cinema landscape today, his response is typically diagnostic. He mentions an article by the novelist Sally Rooney that recently stuck in his mind, which views mainstream American cinema as a symptom of the country’s military activities and post 9/11 anxieties. He wonders whether Americans have “little to be proud of, and that is the reason they feel in these science fiction, Superman, Marvel stuff that they are elevated … the hole that is being proud of your country is filled in by Marvel superheroes,” he says. “That might be something in the collective consciousness of Americans wanting to feel [like they’re playing] a big part again.”

Not that Verhoeven shows any desire to stop making movies: “I’m working with [RoboCop screenwriter] Ed Neumeier on a Washington thriller called Young Sinner. It’s an evangelical thriller,” he says, describing his next project with a dangerous gleam in the eye. “We are writing the screenplay. I’m curious if we can make it, if that’s still possible. I’ll let you know.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 5, 2022 as "Divine camp".

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Annabel Brady-Brown is a film reviewer for ABC Arts, editor of the Metrograph Journal and co-publisher of Fireflies Press.

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