Monday, March 11, 2013

Cahiers du Cinéma and Paul Verhoeven

There is no way to know if the critics at the French film criticism magazine Cahiers du Cinéma will like or hate a movie. Even though there are certain filmmakers that they regularly champion this not excuse them if they make a bad film. Just as they can sing the highest praise for some films they can easily tear a film apart. For example, in their review of the new Malick they write, "It was largely due to the mise en scène that Cahiers championed The Tree of Life. But it is also the fault of the mise en scène that we have to admit the failure of To the Wonder." Though this might sound vague and confusing, but throughout Cyril Béghin's two-page review of the film, Un coup en l'air, he further elaborates on his main points, making a convincing argument.

This uncertainty of how the magazine will evaluate a film is one of its trademarks and makes it exciting to read. In the hierarchy of their reviews there is the Événement, then Cahiers Critique and then Notes sur d’autres films; and depending on the films importance they can publish several pieces on it. The magazine has over twenty writers and they have a committee of writers reserved to write the more significant reviews and the other periphery and guest writers are designated for the other pieces.

To cite some examples from their recent February 2013 issue: to accompany Jean-Philippe Tessé’s great review of Lincoln there is an article by Jean-Sébastien Chauvin, Dans un fauteil, where he focuses on Spielberg’s first senior hero (“this new Spielbergien character has a better understanding of the world and the power to change it.”), Joachim Lepastier reviews Zero Dark Thirty and there is an interesting interview with Kathryn Bigelow by Clementine Gallot, and there are two great essays on Django. As well many of the magazine's positions are expressed in their Notes sur d'autres film section: Tessé continues the magazines attack against serious art films in his review of Sergei Loznitsa’s Dans la brume [“Ruptures de ton, surprises, collisions semblent bannies de ce cinéma au profit d’une pétrification volontariste de tout (mise en scène, montage, jeu d’acteur, etc.), destinée à répondre aux attentes préconcues d’un spectateur fantasmé en receptacle masochiste.”],  Nicolas Azalbert reviews some Latin American films La demora, Elefante blanco, Ici et l’à-bas; Vincent Malausa highlights the savagery of Maniac; while many other films in the section are dismissed.

Some of their recent assessments, that were surprising and unique to them, include: regarding French cinema, they thought that the newest Alain Resnais’ Vous n’avez encore rien vu was only OK and they hated the Audiard (two films that were very admired at Positif), they liked the Twilight franchise (“The saga has given a definitive image to wild abstinence and the pure and puritan desires of adolescence.”), and Chloë Sevigny was recently interviewed and they emphasised her TV work and films with M. Blash.

The Événement cover story of their newest March issue is on two films: Spring Breakers by Harmony Korine, which includes four articles: a biography/interview Spring Break a Nashville by Nicholas Elliott, a review of the film Fluo et Sang by Tessé, a feature on the films producer Megan Ellison by Gallot, and Korine en Morceaux an article on Korine's short films, experimental films and music videos by Lepastier. Camille Claudel 1915 by Bruno Dumont, which includes a ten-page interview Dans un Champ Sauvage by Jean-Sébastien Chauvin and Stéphane Delorme, a review of the film Les illuminés by Delorme, who also interviews Juliette Binoche, Un chemin d'aveugle.
The local film critic Adam Nayman is currently writing his first book and it is on Paul Verhoeven’s cult classic Showgirls where he will “suggests that Showgirls is not so bad it’s good, it’s so good it’s mistaken for bad.” It is for the new Pop Classics series for ECW Press.

Since Black Book in 2007 where he left Hollywood to return to shoot in the Nederlands, Verhoeven’s filmmaking has become more interesting and there is a renewal of critical interest. The film magazine Cinema Scope put Black Book on its cover (N.30) with the feature review/interview by Robert Koehler Vulgar Moralism, Jonathan Rosenbaum in his book Movie Wars (2000) champions Verhoeven (by way of a Jacques Rivette interview in Les Inrockuptibles, which can be read on Senses of Cinema), and in The 100 Best Films of the 1990s for Slant, Showgirls was number fourteen on the list and Eric Henderson says it best when he writes, “We at Slant Magazine were clearly feigning our love for Showgirls solely because it was disreputable to admit fandom.”

But what has Cahiers written about Showgirls, in specific, and Verhoeven, in general? Going through the reviews there is a similar appraisal as the aforementioned reviews with a more positive reception in the more recent years, with the big turning point being Black Book. From ambivalent earlier reviews like, for example, Frédéric Strauss on Basic Instinct (N.457), to a better understanding of Verhoeven working constraints through interviews with him, all the way to Nicolas Azalbert describing his newest film Tricked as an “original experience” in his Rome Film Festival coverage (N.685). Even though Verhoeven has never made the cover of the magazine, his films are respected and he is treated as an auteur.
Showgirls (Cahiers, Jan ’96, N.498) w/ Notes sur d'autres film by Bill Krohn.

Krohn has been writing at Cahiers since the seventies and his idiosyncratic taste can best be understood through his championing of horror and science fiction films, his writing style verges on the paranoid, and his critiques can be scathing. Here is Krohn’s review of Showgirls in its entirety:
“After loosing the battle with the censors on Basic Instinct, the auteur of Showgirls worried that his passionate Las Vegas story would be restricted to those over eighteen years old. His gained artistic liberty allowed him to project his rancid ideas about sex and power, which can best be seen in one key scene: Crystal, star of Las Vegas, pays Nomi, up and coming stripper, to dance naked in front of Zack, the boyfriend of Crystal; Nomi returns the favor by sending Crystal winks of complicity all the while getting Zack to ejaculate. What is shocking in the scene is not its frank sexuality, which one could find in plenty small budget pornos all over cable or on VHS, but the pedantry of its mise en scène which uses the venerable grammar of classical cinema to make sure that the dumbest spectator would understand it. Like how Verhoeven with touching sincerity in the preface of Portrait of a Film: Showgirls writes that “the layers of meanings in this scene and the interactions between the three principal characters is very complex.” One has to, on the other hand, admire Verhoeven for his aesthetic courage and his one unique manifestation: Elizabeth Berkley and Gina Gershon, who play Nomi and Crystal, respectively, are truly vulgar.”
Starship Troopers (Cahiers, Jan ’98. N.520), w/ Cahiers Critique by Emmanuel Burdeau, A good bug is a dead bug. 

Starship Troopers takes place in a futuristic society where American high school students are recruited off to join a fascistic army to go to war against CGI arachnoids. Burdeau writes about it,
“We feel uncomfortable watching Starship Troopers because it is so aggressive and oppressive. This has to do with principally two things. By organizing the intersection between the teenage-fiction of sitcoms and the war film, Verhoeven reveals a larger truth which is so evident that we might have looked over it: the plasticity of sitcoms, with their ideal beauty, energy and cleanliness; an ideal that is also used by the film, which is just as sterile, cold and flawless as a propaganda poster (or a clip from 2B3) has always been a military plasticity, which is supposed to be fascinating.”
Burdeau, who has written a lot about war films (cf. his review of Redacted), elaborates more on the subject,
“Ten years ago, the slogan of Platoon said it all, “The first casualty of war is innocence,” which is a good resume of the law of the war film. […] Here in Starship Troopers, it is the inverse that is true, where it is more like the war is the victim of innocence, and a large part of our being uncomfortable as viewers comes from that.”
Burdeau continues,
“So is Starship Troopers a Nazi film? Maybe not. But, watching it for over an hour, with its wars between man and arachnids, we are stunned more by how a film like this is even possible, and how were there producers that let Verhoeven make it. Never does the machine crack, rare are the films, so full of action and war, where the argument is so thin, and that have so little auto-justification.”
Burdeau concludes,
“There is definitively a critique in Starship Troopers, or it’s more like the movie allows for there to be a critique. But nonetheless it is still a gigantic identification machine, which devastates us. Nazi, maybe not, but reactionary for sure.”
Hollow Man (Cahiers, Sept. ’00, N.549) /w Cahiers Critique by Jérôme Larcher, Trop Visible.

 “Hollow Man puts into perspective in a way so pronounced the process of Paul Verhoeven within the American industry that it ends up revealing its limits,” begins Jérôme Larcher review of the film.
“The subject isn’t anything new for Verhoeven who has made the dialectic visible/invisible the essential motor of his cinema. In Starship Troopers, by force of showing to excess, the cineaste delivered a fearsome critique of the representation of Americans that we’ve previously refused to see. In Hollow Man, the same principal is there, but this time, through an invisible figure, he shows us what we are refusing to see while we desire it. The large subject of this film is then voyeurism, and especially that of the spectators.”
Even though Larcher cites an interview with Verhoeven by Nicole Brenez (Cahiers, Aux frontières du cinéma, April 2000) who calls him “un grand cineaste de l’ironie,” for Larcher, “his work rest essentially on vulgarity,” and that the film’s “beginning had a lot of promise, but gets weighed down as it proceeds.” For Larcher,
Starship Troopers was a gesture of large force but that can’t be repeated without its schematics standing out; while Hollow Man on the contrary reveals at what point Verhoeven cinema rests on principals that are slight and heavy handed, at heart a little brat (see the disappointing references to Rear Window).”
For Larcher, the action scenes are not as good as those in James Cameron’s Aliens or is the moral question as in depth like in Cronenberg’s The Fly, but he concludes on a positive note,
“It is the invisible man that reveals the hidden meaning in the film, by showing us all of the horror and intense strangeness of invisibility, that is where Verhoeven throws the dynamite inside Hollywood, a more than visible sign than what he can find in a dead end.”
Black Book (Cahiers, Dec. ’06. N.618) w/ Cahiers Critique by Stéphane Delorme, Showgirl, and an interview with Verhoeven by Emmanuel Burdeau and Antoine Thirion.

The current chief-editor of Cahiers Stéphane Delorme with this review places Verhoeven in Cahiers territory and since this review his films have earned more respectability in the magazine. For example, in Delorme's review of Darren Arenofsky’s Black Swan, which he really liked, he argued that the film is like a hybrid between Showgirls and Dirty Dancing.

Delorme opens his review, “This is showtime. We’ve been anticipating Verhoeven’s return to Holland in the realist lineage which made his reputation (Soldier of Orange, already a WWII story), and then he went to America to pursue his work at once spectacular and critical as he works within the industry (Total Recall, Starship Troopers and Showgirls).” He further expands on this dichotomy within Verhoeven’s work, “Spectacular and critical, this is pairing has gotten him denounced by the intellectuals and contempt from the critics.”

Black Book is an entertaining WWII film set in the Haye during the Occupation as the Jewish woman Rachel tries to survive amidst the chaos and inhumanity around her. About it Delorme writes, “Black Book is then a stylistic film which sacrifices verisimilitude to the imperatives of the mise en scene ; and at the same time it contains a ravage charge against humanity as with it Verhoeven settles the account he has with the detested Holland.”

“Grand style: Verhoeven slides into a Hitchcockian tradition (Black Book and Black Dahlia, same thing), into the primacy of the scene,” writes Delorme who also compares some scenes to ones from Alfred Hitchcok presents. He also compares the film to the work of De Palma, especially as meditations on systems of power and in regards to style, “If there is a perversity to be the judge regarding a general amorality, Verhoeven wins nonetheless on a different level: one has to be skeptical about those that are pulling the strings (like with De Palma), because all deciders have personal biases. The person with the black book controls all. The strings are heavy, but nonetheless, its all theater.”

Where Larcher in his review of Hollow Man did not accept Verhoeven's irony as an end in itself, Delorme explores it, “Verhoeven is a great director of irony. Not a cynic. What interest him is less that of being disinterested without a reason then the constant balancing between emotion and its doubt, between truth and criticism, and between horror and laughter.”

“We are tossed around by the perseverance of a filmmaker who, like his character, never stops, who never needs to sleep,” writes Delorme, and he focuses on the actress Carice van Houten that plays Rachel, “We accept all of the shake-ups because Rachel is going through them with us. This is the success of Black Book that of creating a character in the center of all of these twists and turns.”

Out of the blue (or at least it appears that way), Delorme compares Black Book to Miami Vice,
“This is why Verhoeven is finally better than Michael Mann. The stories are similar – in Miami Vice a cop infiltrates a gang and falls in love with its boss -, but with Mann the reversibility functions because everyone is identical. The cops infiltrate without an effort because in Miami everyone resembles one another because everyone is a hyper pro. It’s the hypothesis of professionalism, a cinema of Ray-Bans that slide from one world to another without bothering going through anything, because it takes itself so seriously. While with the showman Verhoeven, to change is never natural, and it is the terrain of monstrous and laughable changes, as masks drop like, in the theater. […] It’s the inverse of professionalism: it is a heroine.”
This feminine criticism of anxious masculinity is the emphasis in the review, and also something that is broached more in depth throughout Cahiers. Delorme concludes,
“Rachel/Ellis isn’t the first feminist heroine of Verhoeven who places courageous women (Katie Tippel, Showgirls) conquering women (Basic Instinct) over virile dominance and confusion. But it’s perhaps the most successful.”
While in the interview Verhoeven talks about an unrealized Rasputin project, being unsatisfied with Hollow Man, a Victoria Woodhall story, and a book on Jesus in collaboration with his biographer Rob Van Scheers. Some good quotes include,
“In the nineties, with Basic Instinct, I thought that I could change peoples perception of me, but the commercial failure of Showgirls brought me back. Hollow Man, in regards to its cost, with special effect, so discouraged me that I could not put into it, like in Robocop or Starship Troopers, a political aspect.”
Verhoeven speaks about the difference between Showgirls and Black Book, “With Black Book, it’s the first time that I’m interested in an altruistic character,” and “Nomi is an opportunist, Rachel is an altruist. In Showgirls, everything revolves around Nomi, everything she does is to get higher up in Hollywood. The both of them are strong, definitively: all of my women characters are.”

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