Friday, June 6, 2008

Turkish Delight

Paul Verhoeven's Turkish Delight is, it seems, the notorious Dutch director's idea of a Hollywood-style love story. Boy meets girl, they fall in love almost immediately, they marry. This is a very basic narrative, except that Verhoeven is determined to undermine, question, and indeed vomit all over the expectations, generic conventions, and emotional limitations inherent in this kind of story. For one thing, the boy/girl story as described above is not the entire arc of the film, as it would be in most romantic comedies. The film opens with a lengthy sequence of disturbing violence and sexuality, a raw, rapidly edited assault on the senses that establishes the protagonist, Erik (Rutger Hauer) as a thoroughly unlikeable, vicious, frightening, possibly murderous lecher. And the film ends with a long descent into tragedy and melodrama, in which this despised figure becomes instead an object of sympathy and surprising affection. The rom-com arc, complete with the "cute meet" (she picks him up as a hitchhiker), thus forms only the film's central segment, sandwiched improbably in between much darker territory. Verhoeven's major theme here is mortality, which makes it fitting that his narrative continually bypasses any and all conventional "endings," driving home the point that movie endings are at best artificial, at worst deceptive.

The film's structure sets up certain expectations right from the start. It opens with Erik at his self-destructive worst, wallowing in his trashed apartment and engaging in violent fantasies even as he has rough, dismissive, demeaning sex with countless women who he picks up casually on the streets. The film then flashes back two years, to the start of his relationship with the lovely Olga (Monique van de Ven). Conventional plotting expectations would lead one to believe that this story will, in true circular fashion, lead directly back to the opening scenes, which would promptly resolve themselves along with the film. Verhoeven, though, has no interest in convention except as something to subvert and twist. Not only is the flashback mid-section much more involving than one would expect, with a sweetness, warmth, and emotional complexity barely imagined from the opening, but by the time Verhoeven brings the narrative back around to the opening segment, the story is not brought to a hasty conclusion, but keeps going long beyond this expected ending point. Verhoeven sets up a kind of "origin of tragedy" story, in which events in a flashback lead up to a miserable present briefly glimpsed at the beginning of the film. It's a conventional cinematic storytelling device, one which Verhoeven subverts by extending the film long after the flashback catches up with the present again, pushing the characters through still more emotional states, more scenarios. By doing so, Verhoeven rejects artificial plot constraints and makes his film more like life itself, in which chains of causality are not so neat, and in which the messiness of living and relationships often spill over in unexpected ways.

This is not the only way in which Verhoeven's film is messy. The director has a fascination with bodily processes, with sensuality in all its forms, and at its most giddy moments the film is one of the most potent, irresistible tributes to the pleasures of the sensual life. Erik's love scenes with Olga, in stark contrast to the often brutal ones with unnamed women earlier in the film, are surprisingly tender, passionate, and even sweetly romantic in their own crude way. Verhoeven doesn't shy away from such things, batting his eyes coyly as conventional rom-coms do, but splatters the screen with the messiness of human bodies smashing against each other. His idea of sweetness is often shot through with crudity, with rage, with sadness, with humor, scatological and otherwise, and even sometimes with violence. The romance of Erik and Olga is troubled by many things, not least of which are Erik's budding misogyny and temper, Olga's flighty nature and attachment to her shrewish mother (Tonny Huurdeman), and the fact that these two really don't even know each other by the time they get married. This last bit is something of a subversion of rom-com conventions itself, in that Verhoeven presents a dramatically truncated version of the love story arc. Olga and Erik are fucking and declaring their love within less than a minute from the time they first appear onscreen together. Their whirlwind romance happens so fast, in such a blur of images and short scenes, that it isn't until the wedding is over and the couple is left alone together, that the audience begins to realize the extent to which they are ignorant of everything about each other. They came together on the sheer force of physical, sensual attraction, and everything else is somehow incidental.

As a result, the film's best scenes are the ones in which Verhoeven documents the heady but not frictionless early stages of this relationship. A scene where the pair walks across the beach at sunset parodies and mirrors similar scenes in countless other love stories, but Verhoeven films it with such energy, with such reverence for the colors of the sky and the running, laughing silhouettes of the lovers, that it is a poignant and powerful moment nonetheless. Even better is the scene where a lovers' quarrel turns into a reconciliation in the middle of a downpour, the couple sitting on the curb in the middle of the rain, their clothes soaked through, laughing and drinking wine and embracing. Its the kind of genuine, sensual moment that can be seen in diluted form in countless films; Verhoeven gives the scene its rightful power by allowing the actors to really stretch out with a range of emotions, from rage and overpowering sorrow to the most ebullient joy. This emotional openness, so often leveled off and subdued in Hollywood variations on this plot, gives scenes like these the joy and beauty that they should have in a love story.

Verhoeven is a director who thinks emotionally in terms of his images, and his characters often express their emotions not only through the subtleties of performance, but in physical, visual ways. In a stunning scene where Erik learns that Olga is cheating on him, at a drunken dinner party worthy of Fassbinderian melodrama, the orange hue of the lights turn the entire assembled cast into an undifferentiated mass of laughing faces, all subtly ridiculing Erik right to his face, flaunting his lack of control over Olga's desires. At the end of the scene, Erik stands and literally vomits all over his wife and mother-in-law, spewing his emotional reaction to their betrayal in the most physical way possible. This visceral fascination with bodily processes and waste carries over throughout the film, as defecation recurs as an image again and again. In an earlier scene, Erik picks through Olga's feces to reassure her that she is not bleeding; this is, again, Verhoeven's idea of tenderness and love, a love that doesn't even flinch at getting down and dirty with the waste products from the lover's body. Shit is also a harbinger of death, though, its red color signifying for Olga that she may have cancer like her mother did. When her father (Wim van den Brink) is dying, the extent of his sickness is signaled by the bodily fluids, shit and piss, all leaking through the bottom of his soaked-through bed into metal pans arranged below, filling the room with a stench of death.

Later in the film, Erik watches his mother-in-law's dog take a shit by a tree stump, after which the old lady dutifully wipes the dog's rear with a tissue, in a scene that seems entirely unmotivated beyond its exposure, yet again, of the universality of bodily processes. No matter the differences, Verhoeven seems to be saying, in these crucial ways humans and dogs are exactly the same: they eat, they shit, they fuck, they die. To this end, animals comprise a small but important role in the film. There's also a dog who eagerly licks up the fluids left behind when, at Erik and Olga's group wedding, one of the brides goes into labor and has to rush off, leaving behind a puddle and a bloody stain down the back of her white dress. And after the couple's breakup, Erik cares for and rears back to health a seagull who he accidentally hits with his car, a process that includes the decapitation and gutting of fish for food, which Verhoeven shows in closeup of course. These images are given a nearly equal footing with the film's depictions of equally messy and sloppy human body functions, emphasizing the continuum of nature and our place in it.

This includes, of course, mortality, and Verhoeven doesn't flinch away from candid depictions of death and our reactions to it, any more than he does from sex or scatology. In that respect, the long sequence that deals with the death of Olga's father is one of the film's most important stretches, with Verhoeven's typically earthy interest in the process of dying, and his wry, darkly comic commentary on the ways in which bourgeoisie society attempts to deal with death. In this, as in many other respects throughout the film, Olga's mother is Verhoeven's main vehicle for his satirical jabs at the hypocrisies and moral blind spots of polite society. In a hilarious and ridiculous scene, this woman has many pictures taken of her husband as he lies in his coffin, then asks for one more, posing by his side and mugging for the camera as though they were just a couple of tourists getting their picture snapped. The ridiculousness of this scene is compounded when it transpires that this last snapshot, printed up in tasteful black and white, is handed out at the end of the funeral service as a souvenir. Of course, it's Erik who angrily rejects this disrespectful offering — he prefers more meaningful and earthy souvenirs in general, snipping bits of hair, pubic or otherwise, from all his sexual conquests — and it's Erik who also seemingly senses the greater significance of the funeral service itself. In the midst of it, when the coffin is solemnly descending into the floor on a mechanical lift, he imagines Olga's father, a fun-loving and energetic old man, perched on top of the coffin in his armchair, belting out a song and drumming his hands on the side of the chair. Erik, a sensualist to the last, recognizes that a funeral for such a vibrant man should never be turned into such a maudlin, dreary affair.

If this is one side of Verhoeven's examination of death, the other is the fascination with death's imagery, and especially the idea of decay and recycling, as epitomized by images of both maggots and trash. The maggot's role in death is first broached in an early scene where Erik is commissioned as a sculptor to create religious statutes, including a representation of Jesus' resurrection of Lazarus from the dead. Erik carves this statute with such realism and such attention to detail that visible on Lazarus' legs are the maggots crawling from his dead flesh. When confronted with this excessive detailing by the irate project supervisor, Erik refuses to change his work, declaring that Lazarus was dead, and he was only being true to the reality of what would've happened. Later, Olga receives a call that her father is dying, interrupting a playful love scene with Erik in which he'd been rubbing a bouquet of flowers across her naked chest. After the phone call, when he lifts the flowers from her skin, they leave behind a trail of writhing, squirming maggots and worms slithering across her breasts. The worms recur again, after Olga leaves and Erik is wasting away in his apartment, where open jars and pieces of meat fester and teem with maggots. And just as the maggots represent the recycling processes at work on dead flesh in nature, the film's final shot presents the man-made equivalent, the recycling of the trash heap and the grinding gears of a garbage truck, mashing up the last remnants of a life lost.

Turkish Delight is, as I've come to expect from Verhoeven, an incredibly complex film in the way it deals with its characters and their emotions. It's a film that virtually challenges the audience to find a proper reaction, and the emotional tenor changes so frequently that one can never stabilize one's response. The "proper" reaction is exactly what Verhoeven intends to subvert, along with the easy judgment, preferring a more spontaneous, visceral response. This film requires thinking with the gut as well as the brain. Erik in particular is a very problematic and complicated figure, a despicable man in many, many ways — he even commits a shocking rape — but he's also at times a remarkably sympathetic character, especially in the film's final act, in which his demeanor mellows from overpowering rage and brutality into melancholy and quietude. The fact that Verhoeven stays with the narrative to this point, that he allows his characters to keep going beyond the circumscribed arcs of conventional love stories and melodramas into richer emotional ground, is the most obvious evidence of the film's commitment to its program of subversion. The contrast of emotions, the wild tonal shifts from dark comedy to harrowing violence to warm and sexy love story to tear-jerking tragedy, keep the audience constantly off-balance. It's a stunning film, shocking even more for its raw, messy emotionality than for the copious sex and nudity spread across its frames.


Marilyn said...

You've made this film sound incredibly unappetizing, but as a diehard Verhoeven fan, I'm surprised I haven't seen it yet. I think he is one of the best subverters of Hollywood norms, and agree that his films are much more complex that they may seem on the surface. Thanks for this great review of what I'm sure will be a great film to watch.

Ed Howard said...

Hey Marilyn, thanks for the comment. It's unappetizing in that it's often VERY difficult to watch, both for the occasional gross-out factor of Verhoeven's scatological fascination, and for the overwrought emotional melodrama that takes over the film from time to time. It's also somewhat difficult to see Verhoeven redeem and complicate a character who is in many ways a complete asshole and misogynist. But just as he does with the sympathetic Nazi in Black Book, he manages to make Hauer's Erik into much more than just a rapist and a jerk.

I'm still just testing the waters on Verhoeven myself, I have a lot more to watch (and will be revisiting some of the actioners I haven't seen as an adult). Black Book certainly convinced me of just how much he has to bring to the table, and while I wouldn't say this is on quite the same level, it's still a great film if not always an enjoyable one. Looking forward to reading your thoughts on it.

R said...

I like this review!

However, just a brief comment: this movie is based on a Dutch novel by Jan Wolkers; most of the themes and motives that the review discusses--death, decay, and the temporary escape offered by love, sensuality and sex--are indeed central to Wolkers' work. The movie well captures the mood of his novel. That also means that many of the choices attributed to Verhoeven in this review, actually stem from the novel.

Anonymous said...

An excellent article on a movie many dismiss as some sort of porn or a novice work of a director not yet fully formed. I watched parts of it, not all, and I find that everything you wrote pretty much strikes me the same. It is very sensual in all aspects and, maybe I am different, did not find this movie revolting. And yes, watching young Rutger Hauer, the most handsome actor of all time, and a great actor, is like watching a complete human being, although a slightly nasty one, in all his splendor. There is sex, and it is interesting and different and not like porn, but what stays with you is the character, Eric. A strong portrait of Eric. And a very sensual film, not so much erotic, as sensual involving many of our senses.