Thursday, April 23, 2009
Keetje Tippel, based on the life of the prostitute, artists' model and socialist author Neel Doff, is a typically bracing, emotionally complex melodrama from director Paul Verhoeven. As is often the case with Verhoeven, he's working within the confines of a familiar genre, the period drama in this case, and even within the structure of a familiar story: the commoner who aspires to a higher level and gets transformed into a member of high society. It's a Cinderella story, in other words, and one of the film's characters even refers to the titular heroine Keetje (Monique van de Ven) as Cinderella. She's one daughter in a large and miserably poor family who have moved to Amsterdam in the hopes of finding better opportunities. But once there, the family continues to struggle, living in a horrible, rat-infested house that floods when it rains, with each of them trying without much luck to find and hold a steady job. Keetje's father (Jan Blasser) is a cheery, expansive guy, obviously a decent sort, but he's unable to keep a job for very long, and deeply feels the guilt of being unable to provide for his family. Keetje's bratty, lascivious sister Mina (Hannah de Leeuwe) helps provide for the family by working in a brothel — at least until she gets kicked out for drinking too much — but Keetje is too proud to sell her body, and tries to get more honest work.
This proves not to be easy. One of Verhoeven's most consistent themes is the humiliation and degradation that society heaps on the innocent and pure-hearted, and Keetje cannot escape this fate. She is a beautiful girl, but this only makes it harder for her: everywhere she goes, men want her, lust after her, and look at her poverty as a vulnerability they can exploit. She tries to work in a factory, washing clothes in poison chemicals that burn her hands and throat, but the horrible conditions there, coupled with the antagonism of the other women, quickly drive her away. A stint in a hat shop lasts a little longer, but she's not much happier. Her attempts to show some pride in her handiwork, to engage with her work as something more than a dumb drone, are stifled by her bosses, who don't want creativity. This is textbook Marxist commentary. Keetje is alienated from the results of her labor, forbidden from taking credit for what she's made with her own two hands, treated as simply an inhuman cog in an assembly line. Worse, the shop's owner has her stay late one night and, predictably, rapes her, a scene staged with a typically lurid Verhoeven touch: Keetje, always playful and whimsical, is making shadow puppets on the wall when her play is interrupted by a phallic shadow as the boss, naked and lustful, enters the room.
Keetje's humiliations only begin here, but throughout her often miserable adventures, she retains an unquenchable thirst for dignity and pleasure, and an indomitable spirit that never gives in. A great deal of the credit for this wonderful heroine must rest with van de Ven, an actress who Verhoeven had previously discovered for his film Turkish Delight. She has an impish smile and bright eyes, a waif's face that gives her a girlish, innocent appeal. It is obvious from the first moment she appears on screen that she does not belong in rags, filthy and laboring in a factory; she's too bright and charming, too kind-hearted. She wants the best for her family, and tries to protect them from predators, though it turns out that they mostly do not want protection and respond with spite. But when her family pushes her into prostitution, with her mother hovering outside during her visits with johns, waiting to snap up the money afterward, Keetje does not hesitate to finally abandon them when she gets a chance. She falls in with a crowd of painters and socialists and intellectuals, among them the banker Hugo (Rutger Hauer) and the socialist agitator Andre (Eddie Brugman). These men are able to raise Keetje out of her poverty, giving her fine clothes and, in Hugo's case, moving her into his house.
But Hugo, as it turns out, is actually only a few rungs up the social ladder from Keetje, and the strain of supporting her in a grand lifestyle proves to wear on him — he eventually abandons her for the promise of marrying his boss' daughter, moving up in status and wealth through this match. The film is continually driving home the ways in which poverty and class insecurity affect people even at the level of their one-on-one relationships. In this film, and in these people's lives, class is not an abstract concept, not the proletariat rhetoric of the Communists, but a concrete factor in everyday reality. Class and status are what they must escape, what they must struggle against in order to eat, in order to sustain their families. Life at the bottom is brutal and harsh, as Keetje knows well. She is beaten by the police for stealing bread for her hungry little brother. She is sexually exploited whenever she simply tries to find decent work for herself. Her family seems to grow every time she sees them, inexplicably gathering more children, which suggests that either Verhoeven is elliptically passing over long periods of time, or he's employing a subtle surrealist touch to emphasize the hopelessness of Keetje's family. Every day their family seems to be larger and harder to feed. So Keetje knows all about class, and knows about it from firsthand experience rather than conceptual reading. When Andre and his friends are admiring a painting, praising the pride and nobility of the way the workers are depicted, she corrects them, saying that the workers aren't proud but hungry.
And Keetje is hungry, too, and determined to get what she wants. In one of the film's best scenes, Andre and Hugo take her out to dinner at a fancy French restaurant, where she is oblivious about such niceties as how to order and how to use her utensils. This is a typical scene for this type of movie, a cliché even, but van de Ven plays it with such exuberant energy that it becomes fresh and exciting all over again. With her toothy smiles, her awkward way of shoving her spoon all the way into her broad, rubbery mouth, her easygoing adaptation to any circumstances, she's charming and fun even when she's being somewhat oafish and silly. She manages to make even her greed charming: she's been denied everything for so long that she feels no shame about taking what she can get, when she can get it. Verhoeven has great sympathy and affection for this woman, great respect for her refusal to be cowed or broken. She takes everything that the world can throw at her and simply shakes it off, smiles, moves on.
This is a quality that Verhoeven prizes in his protagonist, a kind of paradoxical joie de vivre in spite of the harsh conditions she faces. The film itself reflects this appreciation for the finer things in its hazy, brightly colored imagery, with many of the exterior scenes seemingly shot at the "magic hour," the many-hued glory of the sky hovering just between day and night. This is a vibrant, powerful film, frequently difficult to watch in its exacting portrait of lower class degradation. But the purity and grace of its heroine, and the fluid visual style of Verhoeven, make it a bittersweet delight as well.