Few directors have divided critics and audiences as strongly as Paul Verhoeven (Basic Instinct, RoboCop, Showgirls), a filmmaker alternately heralded as a savagely witty satirist of American excess and slammed as a heartless, cynical provocateur. A triptych of Verhoeven's early Dutch films—newly released on DVD, accompanied by typically eccentric commentary tracks—only further clouds the issue, displaying a director who, even in his early work, seems answerable to extremes of praise and blame. Verhoeven's second movie, 1973's Turkish Delight, stars Rutger Hauer as a sculptor whose erotically charged relationship with bratty rich girl Monique Van de Ven breaks all the rules not already broken by similar but superior exercises in transgression like The Mother And The Whore and Last Tango In Paris. Hauer and Van de Ven marry in a flurry of sexual passion, but Van de Ven eventually tires of his psychotic intensity and abandons him for another man, sending Hauer into a tailspin of depression and promiscuity. Adapted from a notorious novel by Jan Wolkers, Turkish Delight captures the loose, spontaneous giddiness of the French New Wave, but little of its liberating spirit or intellectual curiosity. Hauer's rebel without a cause has attitude to spare, but that's part of the film's problem: He's nothing but attitude. Whether attempting to rape Van de Ven in a desperate attempt to win her back, or projectile vomiting on her to signal his disappointment in her adulterous behavior, he's more antichrist than antihero. Van de Ven's immature, facile sex fiend isn't much more sympathetic, and in typically misanthropic fashion, Verhoeven has surrounded the two with cartoonish snobs whose propensity for being shocked and offended is matched only by the couple's willingness to shock and offend. Hauer also stars in 1977's Soldier Of Orange, an outsized epic about a group of Dutch college friends whose lives of wealth and comfort change irrevocably when WWII begins. Jeroen Krabbé co-stars as Hauer's fraternity brother, a dashing, aristocratic fellow who joins Hauer in defecting to England and then returning to Holland to try to smuggle out Dutch leaders. Suspenseful, nicely acted, and smartly written (by frequent Verhoeven collaborator Gerard Soeteman), Soldier Of Orange is one of Verhoeven's best films, but it's also among his least distinctive. Perhaps because of his source material, the best-selling memoir of a Dutch war hero, Verhoeven's dark wit and flair for subversion are largely absent, although he still sneaks a good deal of homoeroticism and nudity into an otherwise conventional war movie. Verhoeven's skill as a craftsman permeates every frame, but it says something about his unique sensibility that Starship Troopers—a film pitting neo-fascists against giant bugs—seems far more personal than Orange, a film about the war that helped shape his young psyche. Far more indicative of Verhoeven's later work is The 4th Man, a wickedly funny black comedy starring Krabbé as a broken-down gay writer. First seen fantasizing about killing a lover and stealing a newspaper, Krabbé travels on business to southern Holland, where he meets wealthy blonde goddess Renée Soutendijk, with whom he stays partially out of poverty and desperation and partially to meet and seduce her hunky young boyfriend. As his trip progresses, Krabbé begins to suspect that Soutendijk may not be what she seems, particularly when he learns that her three husbands all died in horrible accidents. Riddled with Catholic iconography and death-haunted symbolism, The 4th Man starts off like a superb Hitchcock thriller, only to morph into a wonderfully mean-spirited surreal comedy owing as much to Buñuel as to Hitchcock. With its enigmatic blonde seductress, bisexual writer, and aura of upscale depravity, The 4th Man in many ways foreshadows Basic Instinct. But where that film was essentially a dire B-movie partially redeemed by its abundant style, The 4th Man boasts a screenplay that does justice to Verhoeven's warped vision.
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