Friday, June 12, 2009

Business Is Business

Business Is Business was Paul Verhoeven's feature film debut, and it definitely proves that, if the controversial and notoriously raunchy auteur's aesthetic was not quite developed from the start, then at least his signature themes and concerns were there all along. This rough-edged but entertaining debut clearly points the way towards Verhoeven's later work, which would continue dealing, in deeper ways, with this film's themes of sexuality, exploitation and the pressures placed on male/female dynamics by society. Verhoeven's satirical wit would be sharpened in subsequent films, as would his ability to carve compelling, multi-layered characters out of the material of cliché and melodrama. Here, his talents are more raw, less focused, and his humor is broader. Usually, the laughs in a Verhoeven film are double-edged, always threatening to stick in one's throat; he tends to lace his humor with a touch of bitterness and rage. But this story of a pair of prostitutes doesn't really delve beneath the surface in this way. Verhoeven seems content to simply mine the situation for as much humor as he can, treating it as a series of anecdotes loosely strung together.

On these broad terms, the film is certainly enjoyable. If nothing else, Verhoeven was always a consummate entertainer, and even his first feature is never less than a blast to watch. It opens with a hilarious race from the airport as a man, newly returned from a long stint in Africa, away from female companionship, rushes to the home of the prostitute Greet (Ronnie Bierman). Once there, he's in a desperate hurry to get started, and eagerly agrees as she keeps adding to the price for every little concession she makes — want my coat off? that'll be another 50. After all this build-up and haggling, the deed itself finally lasts all of a second, and Greet immediately goes to the closet, where she mechanically ticks off his bill on an adding machine and prints him a receipt. It's a great introduction of the film's central character, this staunchly capitalist prostitute for whom her job is really just another business, with little connection to her sexuality. Greet is fortunate that she can be this cavalier about her profession. Her friend Nel (Sylvia de Leur) seems to be less cut out for this line of work, and she additionally suffers at the hands of her abusive, domineering boyfriend Sjaak (Jules Hamel), who takes her money and goes fishing all day while she sells herself.

The subject naturally lends itself to social commentary of a sort, but for the most part Verhoeven doesn't seem to be interested. There are hints of themes he'd develop more substantially in his later work, like the ways in which men and women use sexuality as a weapon against one another, and the double bind of the woman's place in society, where she is punished for being a sexual creature but punished in different ways if she refuses or holds back her sexuality. Mostly, though, this is all very surface level, and there's barely even much of a plot. Nel yearns to escape from Sjaak, and from the life of prostitution in general, and eventually she finds her escape route in the form of the cleaning salesman Bob (Bernard Droog) — she's not much happier as a mundane housewife with this boring schlub, but it's a life anyway. Meanwhile, the seemingly unflappable Greet finds the same desires stirring in her, and briefly believes that she's found love with the married Piet (Piet Römer), who she sleeps with without even charging him. The film's melodrama all seems a little undigested, especially in comparison to what Verhoeven would achieve just two years later with his masterful second feature Turkish Delight, in which he twists and warps melodramatic conventions into an epic of sexual perversity and societal dysfunction.

In Business Is Business, Verhoeven's aims are more modest. Mainly, he produces a parade of eccentrics and sexual deviants to mock and satirize. The film's anecdotal structure mostly consists of one visit from a "client" after another, with each john stranger and goofier than the next. One guy likes to dress up like a schoolboy and get lectured (and spanked, naturally) by the teacher and schoolmistress. One guy likes to get naked and then have the girls scare him by donning a creepy witch mask, screaming and banging on things. Another wants a fake surgery performed on him. Another has a thing for dressing up in high heels and a maid's outfit and cleaning Greet's apartment, with her berating and spanking him for not doing a good job. Most memorably of all, one odd duck comes with a suitcase full of feathers, covering his own body with them and giving some to the girls, who proceed to run around clucking like chickens. What all of these clients have in common is that almost none of them seem to want actual sexual intercourse of any kind — they get excited by debasing themselves, by being humiliated, and all the girls have to do, generally, is play along with the game. They're as much actresses as prostitutes.

This succession of oddities and bizarre fetishes are trotted out one by one simply for Verhoeven to make fun of; each of these guys is so exaggerated, so caricatured, that there's no possible response but to laugh. And indeed the film is frequently funny, even if Verhoeven's swinging at the easiest possible targets to hit. The humor is goofy and light, not at all what one expects of a director who, though always working in debased genres, often burrows deep into the heart of clichés and conventions in order to get at the deeper essences lurking within generic stories. This is not the case here. Even when the story integrates more dramatic material — the fights between Sjaak and Nel are truly harrowing and disturbing, and Nel's meek returns afterward are a startlingly true depiction of domestic violence's ugly cycle — Verhoeven doesn't generate the tension he usually sparks from juxtaposing his films' trashier elements against the more emotionally volatile moments. Instead, the two elements within the film simply sit uncomfortably together: the emotional impact of scenes like this is undeniable, but never bleeds over into the funnier scenes, which dominate the film.

On the whole, Business Is Business is an interesting but uneven debut for Verhoeven, who would quickly progress beyond this shaky dark comedy into much more sophisticated explorations of similar territory. This film remains relevant primarily for Verhoeven fans looking for a glimpse of the Dutch auteur's roots. As such, the seeds of his later work are clearly visible, but no more; it would take until Turkish Delight for these seeds to bear real fruit.

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