Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Director Report Card: Paul Verhoeven (1971)

Over his forty year film career, Paul Verhoeven has been called many different things: A one-man Dutch film industry. Europe's greatest pervert. The Dutch Madman. He's been called both a genius and a hack, one of the greatest filmmakers alive and also one of the worst. His is a career defined by excess, often with a giggling sense of humor over the crazy or naughty stuff he's gotten away with. After the success of his comeback picture, "Elle," now seems like a good time to revisit Verhoeven's past features.

I'll also be covering some of the sequels and spin-offs of his more successful films. But probably not "Basic Instinct 2," "Showgirls 2," or the "Total Recall" remake. I have some standards. Anyway, one with the Report Card.

1. Business is Business
Wat zien ik

Paul Verhoeven began his career in Dutch television, making a number of short films and documentaries, before finding his first real success with the Rutger Hauer-starring, swashbuckling TV series “Floris.” Following that show's thirteen episode run, Verhoeven wanted to break into feature films. The goal he shared with screenwriter Gerard Soeteman was to adapt a serious work of Dutch literature. Instead, the duo decided to make something more commercial first. The result was “Business is Business,” adapted from a novel by Albert Mol. The film was very successful, enough to fund Verhoeven's next film, but wouldn't be his breakthrough feature.

“Business is Business” follows the day-to-day life of two Amsterdam prostitutes, both of whom live in the same canal house. Greet lives on the ground floor while Nel lives ahead, with her frequently abusive boyfriend. The two go about their lives, servicing the increasingly bizarre fetishes of their customers. Nel endeavors to leave this life behind, eventually marrying a salesman that doesn't know about her profession. Greet pursues a potentially romantic relationship with a rich client. Despite the things happening around her, business remains business.

If nothing else, “Business is Business” is valuable as a time capsule of Amsterdam in the early seventies. The local color and charm of the city at the time is evident on screen. The film never lingers on the gorgeous architecture of the old canal houses. Yet they still make up most of the background, adding to the film's charm. The story is set among the street vendors and prostitutes, drawing parallels between the respectable and not-so-respectable businesses, both hawking their wares. Amsterdam probably isn't as seedy today. But, if you're like me and find such an atmosphere interesting, “Business is Business” is worth seeing just as a trip back in time.

The direction is literally colorful at times too. Verhoeven often paints the interior of Greet's apartment in glowing neon. One especially memorable shot displays her face, bathed in a sickly green light. More often, Verhoeven slyly paints Greet's room in the traditional colors associated with ladies of the evening: Lusty reds, deep purples and blacks. This energy carries over to the editing. The scenes are cut briskly, making sure “Business is Business” moves along quickly from scene to scene. This light touch characterizes the entire motion picture.

Despite functioning as a light-hearted comedy, “Business is Business” is true to its title. In the opening scene, Greet greets an eager client. After explaining he hasn't gotten laid in a while, he flops frantically atop her for a few minute before finishing prematurely. Greet pulls out an adding machine and charges him accordingly, ushering him out of the room. This is an unsentimental business. The professional women reserve the right to eject a client at any point. While indulging the bizarre burial fetish of a quasi-necrophile, Greet decides she has had enough and gets up and leaves. This is not a glamorous or romantic portrayal of the sex industry. Greet and her fellow sex workers are here because they're getting paid.

By portraying professional women who making a living on their own terms, it becomes possible to interpret “Business is Business” from a feminist perspective. Many of Greet and Nel's customers have unusual fetishes and fantasies. (Verhoeven and Soeteman collected anecdotes from real Amsterdam prostitutes, so presumably some of these bizarre scenarios are based on true stories.) Many of these situations give the women dominating roles. One client, a doctor, dresses up as a misbehaving school boy so that Greet, acting as his teacher, can paddle him. One man finds fear erotic and has Greet don a monster movie mask, scaring him until he orgasms. A reoccurring customer dresses up in a frilly maid outfit, has Greet chastise him for a doing a poor job dusting the house, and then gets paddle him. Whether sex work is inherently empowering or degrading is a topic outside my reach but “Business is Business” is clearly having fun subverting gender roles.

Some times, Verhoeven's films uses the bizarre sexual fetishes of the prostitute's visitor to give the women power. Yet the movie isn't beyond just making fun of the weird shit that turns people on. One man, who Greet and Nel pick up suddenly in a park, has a chicken fetish. He plasters feathers to his nude body and has the hookers do the same. They then run around the room, clucking and pecking. Another man demands an elaborate surgery scenario, with himself as the patient and the prostitutes as the surgeon. Notably, one or the other woman finds these situations goes a little too far. The film is obviously chuckling at the strange ways human sexuality can bend. But, as someone who has spent way too much time on the internet, I'm inclined to believe real people have these same fetishes.

When a romantic aspect does appear in “Business is Business,” Verhoeven uses it to criticize social divides. Greet has a favorite customer, a wealthy married man with a frigid wife. She's always happy to see him and their sessions together are more intimate, more genuine than her other clients. Yet when Greet tries to shift from sex worker to girlfriend, the results are disastrous. The man takes her to an opera performance. She loudly complains, climbs over the seats, and even attempts to eat a candy bar during the show. Later, we discover the man was going to end the relationship anyway.  The scene is played for broad comedy but the intent is obvious. The rich upper class and poor working class may meet in the bedroom but aspects of society, some self-imposed, keep them apart everywhere else.

If there's any element of “Business is Business” that hasn't aged well, it's the somewhat flippant treatment of spousal abuse. Nel is regularly beaten by her boyfriend. She frequently has to cover black eyes and bruises with make-up. One fight is so vocal that he tosses a TV through a window and then strangles her. The movie relates to Nel. One such beating concludes with Greet turning the tables on the man, pummeling him into a state of catatonia with a stuffed fish. Yet the slapstick approach to physical abuse is hard to swallow. It certainly brings down what is otherwise an amusing film.

Ronnie Bierman stars as Greet. Bierman had appeared in several television series before but this was her feature film debut. She acts like an old pro. Bierman is a fine comedic actress, rolling out biting dialogue with a droll but charming wit. Yet she also allows the character's sour outlook on life to shine through a few times. When she starts critiquing a stripper during an outing with a john, you can tell her comments come from a place of vulnerability. Greet masks her disappointment with a professionalism and humor but you can see the hurt human inside. Bierman would go on to appear in a number of projects before dying young in 1984.

Co-starring in the film is Sylvia de Leur as Nel, Greet's best friend and fellow escort. While Bierman's Greet takes her profession in stride, de Leur's Nel is more worn down by the work. In-between the social stigma of being a sex worker and her abusive boyfriend, she strikes the viewer as a very sad person. There's even a tragic element to the character. Even after leaving her profession behind and graduating to the more socially respectful position of housewife, she's demeaned by a demanding, naive husband. Yet the chemistry de Leur has with Bierman still makes Nel a funny, amusing character.

If it wasn't already obvious that “Business is Business” is steeped in the culture of 1971, give the soundtrack a listen. There's no funky basslines but something about the score sounds definitively seventies to me. Composed by Julius Steffaro, who also worked on “Floris,” the music is heavy on the upbeat trumpets and chirping human voices. You get a definite Herb Alpert vibe from the main theme. It is pretty catchy, I'll give it that. The music works the best when focusing on a more low key piano melody, hinting at the character's inner sadness.

Paul Verhoeven wouldn't be very satisfied with “Business is Business” but it would successfully launch his cinematic career. The movie would also launch the career of cinematographer Jan de Bont, who would eventually become the director of blockbusters like “Speed” and “Twister.” The director himself may not think much of the film but it isn't a bad movie. Breezy and entertaining, while hinting at the talent for gleeful vulgarity and social commentary that would become the director's trademark in the future, “Business is Business” is a decent little exercise in ribaldry. [Grade: B] 

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