Benedetta

Bartolomea and Benedetta

How funny is Benedetta meant to be? Is it a serious film examining the mindset of religious people of a different time, or a nunsploitation flick straining every sinew to get its stars out of their clothes and comically at it?

It’s an adaptation of Judith C Brown’s book, Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Reinaissance Italy. But tellingly, Gerard Soeteman, who worked on the original, never-realised adaptation with director Paul Verhoeven in the 1980s, had his name removed from the credits when he realised which way Verhoeven and new screenwriter David Birke were taking the material for the 2021 version.

In bawdy, winkingly vulgar style, not unlike Pasolini’s Canterbury Tales, the story follows a clever, self-possessed young girl into a convent in 17th-century Italy. Eighteen years later and fully grown (and now played by Virginie Efira), the young Benedetta’s austere life of poverty, chastity and obedience is regularly being punctuated by visions of Jesus Christ. In one, as she runs towards him ecstatically, she shouts “j’arrive” (“I’m coming”). In another, Jesus slays snakes threatening Benedetta and then kisses her on the mouth. No need for Freudian interpretation of these dreams, Verhoeven and Birke have done it all for us.

Benedetta’s dangerously sublimated sex drive – “your worst enemy is your body” she is told on first arriving at the convent – is cranked further into action when new novice Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia) arrives and is put in her care. A sexual relationship is soon in full swing. As if that weren’t enough, the stigmatic wounds of the crucified Christ also start appearing on Benedetta’s body. Whether sent by God or inflicted by Benedetta herself is left half open.

These wounds are the meat in a stew of intrigue involving the convent’s abbess (Charlotte Rampling), the abbess’s jealous daughter (Louise Chevillotte), a local provost hungry for power (Olivier Rabourdin) and the regional papal nuncio (Lambert Wilson), who on learning of the goings-on at the convent – and he doesn’t know the half of it – decides to come down hard on Benedetta and bring the nonsense to a stop.

The nuns at work, weaving
The nuns at work, weaving



As if this weren’t enough, bubonic plague is ravaging the land, and is threatening to arrive at the convent of Pescia at any minute. Oh, and there’s a comet in the sky, which is surely a portent for something. Baroque and roll!

This story is all told with a typical Verhoeven focus on bodily functions. A fart here, a pregnant woman squeezing milk out of her tit there, a statuette of the Virgin Mary carved into a dildo, Benedetta and Bartolomea sitting side by side on the earth closet taking a dump together… plus more naked flesh than seems strictly necessary, even to tell a story about two nuns ravishing each other each night while their fellow sisters sleep.

Even for the director of the notoriously nudy Showgirls, it all comes over as excessive. But while the visuals tug in one direction, the screenplay heads in the other, insisting that this is an earnest undertaking. The acting, too, is straight-down-the line-serious, and while Virginie Efira and Daphne Patakia get most of the camera’s attention, Charlotte Rampling is impressive as the haughty-to-humbled abbess.

The same cannot quite be said of the cinematography, which hangs somewhere in space unsure whether it’s meant to be a hard-focus depiction of an actual reality, or the ambiguous soft focus of soft porn. Anne Dudley’s score is also all over the place, devolving regularly to little more than religious vamping… a de profundis from the heart of a bewildered composer.

At one level it’s all great fun, even if the balance of the film is upset by the nudity, some of which is straight-up ridiculous – why, for example, are Benedetta and Bartolomea out wandering naked in a field towards the end? This isn’t the nudity-as-power of other Verhoeven films like Basic Instinct, Showgirls or Black Books, but something else. And while it’s possible to see the whole thing as a big satire/pastiche of the 1970s arthouse/soft porn crossover, there’s also the strong suspicion that Verhoeven’s dirty old man has simply won out over the serious (if playful) auteur.



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© Steve Morrissey 2022









Showgirls

Nomi licks the poledancer's pole

The film that ruined a lot of careers, Showgirls has a reputation it only partially deserves (though there is that sex scene in the swimming pool). Since it debuted in 1995 it’s been a soft target for any prurient soul looking for an easy win. Look – naked women! Its actual failings are far less regularly mentioned.

Sleazy, camp, sexist and so on. It’s none of these, but it does portray a sleazy, camp and sexist world in a bracingly honest way, and there are plenty of commentators with an agenda only too willing to deliberately confuse the two.

It’s an A Star Is Born story, with Elizabeth Berkley as the wannabe turning up in Las Vegas and working her way up from lapdancer to chorus girl to star of one of those cheesey Vegas shows that’s all about the dancers’ bodies rather than artistic expression.

Paul Verhoeven directs, with the sort of pizzazz and maniacal gleam in the eye you’d expect from the man who made Total Recall and Basic Instinct. When the film’s meant to be erotic, it’s erotic, when it’s meant to be tender, it’s tender, Verhoeven hits all the emotional beats (though there is that sex scene in the swimming pool). With just enough ironic distance, he presents the big stage spectaculars as the fun, overblown nonsenses they are. Vegas is tacky, and so are the people in it. Shoot the messenger – for his efforts Verhoeven won the worst director and worst picture Razzie. He didn’t deserve to, but he did at least turn up to accept. Pretty gracious, in the circumstances. The film went on to win the worst film of the decade, laughably beating out The Postman.

Verhoeven hadn’t even wanted to make the film. He hadn’t liked Joe Eszterhas’s original script, which Eszterhas rewrote to add an All About Eve thriller element to the existing story. Verhoeven still didn’t really like it, but took the gig to try and help out producer Mario Kassar, whose Carolco production company was in financial difficulty. In the event, the failure of Showgirls and Cutthroat Island in the same year would turn out to be Carolco’s death knell.

The film’s failings are all Eszterhas’s. Whatever he says he did during the rewrite process, the finished screenplay looks as if all the requested All About Eve elements had been simply dropped into what was already there – a formless Pilgrim’s Progress tale of one woman’s journey through sleaze. As in John Bunyan’s 17th-century original, Eszterhas’s pilgrim, Nomi (Berkley), undertakes a journey through her own Slough of Despond, Valley of Humiliation and Doubting Castle before reaching the Celestial City.

Nomi lapdances for Zack
Nomi shows Zack her assets



As to Bunyan’s chapter on The Delectable Mountains, let’s talk about Elizabeth Berkley’s body, and the film’s nudity. Undoubtedly gifted when god was handing out physical equipment, Berkley is also in her prime here, aged around 22, and we get to see a lot, a-lot-a-lot, of her tits. This is a film about lapdancers and Vegas showgirls, and much of it takes place backstage, where performers often get changed, so in a way it would be odd if we didn’t. Verhoeven takes a European-nudist-beach approach to it all, rather than the usual snickering peek-a-boo approach favoured by the supposedly more moralistic Hollywood mainstream. In Verhoeven’s world, sometimes being naked is normal.

Berkley’s performance is as mad and exaggerated as the lipliner overemphasising her mouth, but it’s deliberate. Nomi is a woman unhinged by events in her past, it turns out, though we don’t learn any of this until it’s way too late – Eszterhas again. The joy of watching All About Eve is knowing that Eve is a sly little minx who is after the star’s top billing. With Nomi we’re not even sure that she’s really the bad hat in this fight, especially when the star whose position she’s tilting at is the brassy and entitled Cristal Connors (Gina Gershon, giving it the full grand dame, as much as you can in sequins with your nipples on display).

It looks great. Shot in lurid, winking Vegas neon by Verhoeven’s regular DP Jost Vacano, it’s soaking in that mid-80s-to-mid-90s cocaine-fuelled, lobster-and-champagne ethos of so many films of the era – see 9 1/2 Weeks or Wall Street. Secretly it sympathises with the bad guys, in other words, or more to the point, it has no time for the little guys. Hence the dismissive treatment of Molly (Gina Ravera), the friend Nomi makes immediately on arriving in Vegas, the only properly decent human being in the film, who’s sidelined by Eszterhas’s screenplay until the time comes for her character to suffer the sort of treatment that is entirely undeserved and advances the movie not one jot.

Other “little guys” – Glenn Plummer as the dick-driven but sweet guy with a thing for Nomi, Kyle MacLachlan as Vegas showrunner Zack – also get toyed with in a half-in, half-out way.

As for the vague lesbian subtext, it’s all a bit tokenistic and feels like a middle-aged screenwriter’s girl-on-girl-action fantasy rather than a genuine relationship borne out of real emotion. There’s not much real emotion in Showgirls.

Ultimately, the film’s real problem is that for all its glorious over-the-topness, the endless buffet of excess starts to fatigue the viewer. What, more tits? More showstopping show numbers? Cut half an hour out – from the second half – and you might have something. How about that, Mr Verhoeven, a director’s cut?



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© Steve Morrissey 2021









Black Book

Carice Van Houten in Black Book

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

23 May

 

Netherlands declares independence from Spain, 1568

On this day in 1568, the battle of Heligerlee was fought and won by the rebel army of William I of Orange, against the Duke of Alba, representative of the Hapsburg ruling dynasty. It marked the beginning of the 80 Years’ War for the independence of the Protestant Netherlands from Catholic Spanish rule. Though the rebels won the battle, they lost the campaign, due to lack of funds, and the rebellion sputtered out, only to flame up again in 1572. By 1581 the Netherlands were independent, though it took until 1648 for this to be recognised by Spain, who were at various times in the interim fighting a war against France, Turkey and England, all of whom wanted to prevent the Hapsburgs from becoming the dominant family in Europe. At a time when dynasties appeared to be the natural order in Europe, the Netherlands’ fight for independence marked a shift towards a different organising principle: the nation state.

 

 

 

Black Book (2006, dir: Paul Verhoeven)

Paul Verhoeven, born in the Netherlands in 1938, decamped to Hollywood in the 1980s, where he made a run of hugely successful hit movies. Some were powerfully imagined sci-fi numbers (Total Recall, RoboCop), others trashy teases (Showgirls, Basic Instinct), some a bit of both (Starship Troopers, Hollow Man). For his return to his native country he’s gone back to the territory explored in Soldier of Orange – the Second World War – and is using all the tricks he learnt marshalling some of Hollywood’s moodiest actors and biggest budgets to tell a widescreen story of a singer called Rachel who, after seeing her entire family killed and then, in death, turned over for their valuables, infiltrates the Gestapo to pass information back to the Netherlands Resistance. Rachel is a Jew, and the name is a giveaway, so along with dying her hair blonde, she takes a gentile name, Ellis, and dives in. This is a story of clear goodies and baddies. Well it would be if Verhoeven hadn’t made it. Rachel/Ellis is obviously on the side of the angels, but otherwise there are more shades of grey in Black Book (choice of title obviously ironic) than you get in the average war film made by someone who actually remembers the Nazis inhabiting his home country, as Verhoeven does. Disconcertingly, the baddies turn out to have redeeming features. In the case of one appallingly bestial Nazi, he has the most gorgeous singing voice. In the case of local Nazi boss Ludwig Müntze (Sebastian Koch), he’s a cultured man, a stamp collector, obeying orders with a great deal of reluctance. The goodies, too, aren’t that great, there being something very dubious going on in the higher echelons of the Dutch Resistance. At one point, in fact, Rachel/Ellis is caught between both parties, accused by each of being a spy. What is a girl to do? Verhoeven also addresses that old saw, of the Jews being in some sense responsible for their fate, in the figure of this brave woman putting her life on the line every day to try and defeat Hitler and his henchmen.
As well as being a cracking wartime thriller, Black Book is a Verhoeven film, so there’s got to be nudity, though watch how it is used. Rachel/Ellis dyes her pubic hair – careful girl – so collar and cuffs will pass even intimate tests. There are a number of scenes in which naked Gestapo men make sexual sport with local Dutch girls. The girls are naked because they are chattels; the men are naked as a sign of their power. Yet in the scenes where Rachel goes to bed with Müntze, intending to do him injury but in fact falling for him, nudity turns into something more familiar – a marker of genuine intimacy. This lack of fear in the face of the naked body has always marked Verhoeven out, and may explain why some of the reviews for this film were a bit lukewarm; payback from the puritans. Though the critical herd mentality could be at play too – Verhoeven just isn’t hot any more. And nor are war films. Black Book is not perfect, there is a terrible squeezing of too much material into too small a space once the war ends and Rachel heads off fairly unnecessarily to a kibbutz, but Carice Van Houten’s performance is nuanced and magnetic and star-making, and Koch is as great as he ever is (you might have seen him as the lead in The Lives of Others). This is a film that deserves to be seen.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • A great Verhoeven film
  • Carice Van Houten’s performance
  • Sebastian Koch’s performance
  • The Netherlands’ most expensive movie to date

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Black Book – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Black Book

Sebastian Koch and Carice Van Houten in Black Book

 

 

In some quarters the director Paul Verhoeven is now eternally infamous for Sharon Stone’s is she/isn’t she leg-crossing moment in Basic Instinct. But he came to prominence with a Second World War movie, Soldier Of Orange, in 1977. Black Book sees Verhoeven return to his native land, his native Dutch tongue and the 1939-45 war in an engrossing drama focusing on one young Jewish woman (played by the remarkable Carice van Houten), a member of the Dutch resistance who finds herself right at the heart of the Nazi war machine. It is a familiar genre but Verhoeven injects fresh elements into it – notably dark humour, lashings of nudity and a fuzzy delineation between goodies and baddies. So he’s not that far off the territory he explored in Basic Instinct. Where Verhoeven does strike out is in his examination of a claim that occasionally rears its head – that the Jews made mass extermination easy by being too passive. Verhoeven gives the lie to that suggestion simply and emphatically – in the shape of Van Houten’s redoubtable Jewish heroine. Black Book is a bold idiosyncratic film and a big return to form by the director. If there’s a quibble, it’s that towards the end the hitherto beautiful pacing is dropped in favour of a gabbled dash for the finish line. For a Dutch film the budget was huge (€16 million) but it looks to me like the money ran out, making this that rarity among films – a long film that really should be even longer.

© Steve Morrissey 2007

 

 

 

Black Book – at Amazon.com