Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Thursday, May 11, 2017

Director Report Card: Paul Verhoeven (1973)

2. Turkish Delight
Turks fruit

Paul Verhoeven wanted to begin his theatrical career by adapting a serious work of Dutch literature. Instead, he made “Business is Business,” a farcical comedy. The director would achieve his goal with his second feature. “Turkish Delight” is based off a novel by Jan Wolkers, widely considered a landmark work in the Netherlands. It would become Verhoeven's break-out feature, at least in his home country. “Turkish Delight” would become the most successful Dutch movie of all time, with some prognosticating that 26% of the country's population saw it in the theaters. The film would be nominated for an Academy Award, launching Verhoeven and Rutger Hauer to international recognition. Over forty years later, the film is still widely discussed.

Eric lives in squalor and is becoming addicted to hook-ups with random women. It wasn't always this way. Once, he was a successful sculptor, living a Bohemian life style. Once, he had the love of Olga, a gorgeous young woman with beautiful red hair. Eric and Olga spent their days and nights entwined in each other arms, making passionate love. The couple would quickly marry not long after meeting in the streets of Amsterdam. The two survived social obstructions in Holland and Ogla's disapproving mother, their love keeping them together. Yet sometimes passion isn't enough to make a relationship last.

“Turkish Delight” begins with graphic violence. In a deranged fantasy, Eric smashes a man's head in, shoots a woman in the forehead, and garrotes two bound individuals. The film then cuts to a explicit shot of Rutger Hauer's flaccid penis. The character then masturbates to pictures of a naked woman, grunting obscene thoughts to himself before orgasm. If that isn't an opening statement, I don't know what one is. “Turkish Delight” was sold in America as a “love story.” Yet that opening barrage of explicit images should make it clear that this isn't a typical love story. “Turkish Delight” is a graphic film, concerned intimately with the process and price of passion, with matters of the flesh.

That last point is especially prominent. “Turkish Delight” is a fleshy film, the camera lingering on the contours and folds of the human body. Pubic hair appears frequently. The nudity is copious, the characters probably spending as much time naked as they do clothed. Yet  Verhoeven doesn't just pile sex on the viewer to titillate, though that is undoubtedly part of his goal. Instead, he wants to emphasize the common humanity of being naked, of having sex. And of other things too. Characters throughout “Turkish Delight” frequently reference going to the bathroom, of urinating and excreting. A bowel movement gets a close-up, a woman in a wedding dress looses control of her bladder, raw sewage spews from a pipe, and a dog shits right on camera. Verhoeven wants to shock. He also wants to show things we see in real life everyday.

For all its explicit content, there's also a genuine eroticism to “Turkish Delight.”  Consider the scene where Erik and Olga make love by candlelight. The camera lingers on Monique Van de Ven's ass, clearly an object of obsession for Verhoeven, and the coupling is no less graphic than usual. Yet the soft lighting makes the scene romantic. Despite all the sex Olga and Erik have, there's even an innocence to the characters. In one amusing scene, the two's honeymoon is constantly interrupted by visitors to the door. It's a slapstick sequence drawing attention to how the two lovers aren't much more than big kids. They are all youthful energy, untamed, wild, and vulgar. They don't have adult cares or fears yet.

The director's visual sense continues to develop in his second feature. The strong use of color that was apparent in “Business is Business” returns. Olga is introduced in a bright pink outfit, which draws attention to her radiant red hair. That last point informs her entire character, showing how fiery she is. Sometimes, the bright colors take over the film. Some of the love scenes are characterized by a golden glow. One specific sequence is bathed in reds, predicting an upcoming burst of anger. Throughout, Verhoeven engineers some very memorable images. Such as a cramped love scene in a car concluded with washing fluid spurting onto the wind shield. Or a collection of worms and bugs left on Ogla's bare chest.

As in “Business is Business,” a story of class struggle and social segregation lurks in the background of “Turkish Delight.” Olga's parents disapprove of her relationship with Erik because he's a poor, unwashed, unemployed artist. The one scene in “Turkish Delight” really focused on this divide occurs when Erik is commissioned to make a sculptor for a hospital. The queen of Holland drives out to witness the statue's unveiling. Because of his bohemian appearance, Erik is nearly barred from seeing his own artwork's premiere. Even after getting in, he is pushed around by the guards, for fear that Olga's revealing outfit might scandalize the queen. How some people are treated differently because of their background is something Verhoeven was clearly interested in.

Paul Verhoeven and Rutger Hauer first collaborated on TV series “Floris.” It was clearly a partnership that worked, since Verhoeven would be Hauer's leading man in the Netherlands. “Turkish Delight” was also Hauer's feature film debut. Rutger perfectly captures the uncontrollable energy and passion central to Erik's character. Hauer projects the character's uncontrollable sexual passion, the same passion that makes him love Olga, that drives his art. Yet Erik's passion can sometimes lead to erratic, even off-putting, behavior. As the film progresses, he even becomes abusive. Hauer's performance is fiery, powerful and crass, representative of the movie as a whole.

The other end of the youthful love affair is Monique Van de Ven as Olga. Verhoeven casts Van de Ven specifically because he felt she had a certain innocent quality. Like a child, Olga is prone to mood swings and outbursts. Her emotions vary wildly within the same scene. While another actress might have just played Olga as rutterless, Van de Ven finds the purpose in the character. She touches on the pain and sadness that secretly drives Olga. Her chemistry with Hauer is also extremely important. You have to believe that these two develop a passionate desire for each other immediately upon meeting. The two actors make it work.

What makes “Turkish Delight” very different from other romances is the severity and suddenness of the relationship's dissolution. Slowly, hints are dropped that Olga is unhappy about something. What exactly upsets her is never revealed. Instead, out of nowhere, she cheats on Erik. He reacts violently, with anger so intense he pukes everywhere. Just as suddenly as it started, the love affair is over. Passion turns to resentment and rage. Erik acts unreasonably, even forcing himself on Olga. “Turkish Delight” is making a point about how fickle youthful passion can be. It's also showing how life comes at you fast, how quickly things that seem certain can change on a whim. This makes it a deliberate antithesis to your typical “love conquers all” stories.

The film suggests one theory for why Erik and Olga split so violently. Both are growing up. Erik becomes concern with making money, selling intimate artwork of the two of them because it pays. Olga is less comfortable with this, as she intentionally zones out after getting a factory job. In other words, as their priorities change, the two drift apart, as often happens with young lovers. Erik's life of squalor and sexual promiscuity only lasts so long too. In a case of loaded visual symbolism, he nurses a wounded seagull back to health. After an awkward visit with Olga, he then lets the bird free. It's a visualization of that old “if you love something, let it free” adage but also shows Erik letting go of the pain, and desire, Olga caused him.

Most movies would end there. “Turkish Delight” even fades out during that scene, the audience half expecting the credits to start rolling. If the film had ended at that point, it still would've been really good. Instead, “Turkish Delight” adds on an extended last act. Throughout the film, Olga has expressed a fear of dying of cancer. We learn that her mother had a breast amputated due to cancer. After bumping into her, the two casually reconnecting as more mature people, Olga collapses. Yes, she does have cancer. And she degrades quickly and painfully. These scenes are bracing, her mental state and physical body falling apart. In these scenes, Erik proves that he really does love her. But it's not enough to save her. “Turkish Delight's” haunting final shot shows the red wig he bought for her crushed in a garbage truck. This seemingly points towards a message about passion and love giving life, a life that can end at any point, meaning.

“Turkish Delight's” combination of graphic sex, naked sentimentality, dark humor, and Verhoeven's nasty obsession with bodily functions probably shouldn't work. Somehow, all of “Turkish Delight's” elements blend together into something powerful. It's a vulgar movie that uses its vulgarity to power towards an meaningful point about love, passion, and death. That this would become the highest grossing Dutch film says a lot about the taste of the people of the Netherlands. Or maybe the seventies were just a very different time. Either way, “Turkish Delight” remains an oddly hypnotizing motion picture, crass but graceful, explicit but insightful. [Grade: A]

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