Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, May 12, 2017

Director Report Card: Paul Verhoeven (1975)

3. Katie Tippel
Keetje Tippel / Katie's Passion

After “Turkish Delight” became the highest grossing Dutch film of all time, Paul Verhoeven suddenly had more resources at his disposal. For his next motion picture, his screenwriting partner, Gerard Soeteman, would again adapt a famous piece of Dutch literature. “Katie Tippel” is based off the autobiography of Neel Doff, an influential political writer from the Netherlands. “Katie Tippel” would become the most expensive Dutch film up to that point. (Though, amusingly, Verhoeven and Soeteman still had to cut the script down for budgetary reasons.) Luckily, this film would also become a success, continuing Veroheven's popularity in his home country.

Our story begins in 1881 in Stavoren, a small town on the Dutch coast. A teenage girl named Katie travels to Amsterdam with her father, mother, and five brothers and sisters. The family is moved into a cold basement apartment that floods at night. Work is hard to come by. Katie's older sister soon finds employment as a prostitute. After jobs in a fabric factory and hat shop don't work out for her, Katie goes down this path herself. Luckily, she catches the eye of Hugo, a rich banker. Hugo introduces Katie to a life of wealth and opportunity. Soon, however, she discovers that money isn't everything.

Themes of class struggle and social inequality bubbled under the surface in “Business is Business” and “Turkish Delight.” In “Katie Tippel,” these ideas move to the forefront. Upon arriving in Amsterdam, Katie and her family is immediately humiliated by deplorable living conditions. They have to burn their wooden shoes to stay warm at night. Katie is degraded by her employers and co-workers. A rich boss demands sexual favors. Later, a wealthy gentleman attempts to sexually abuse her younger brother. The film's climax features Katie, stripped of her newly acquired wealth, participating in a worker's march. The scene concludes with policemen shooting the protesters, men dying for no reason other than expressing their opinions. This is a world were the poor are trampled on and the rich prosper. It's our world. 

If “Turkish Delight” was Verhoeven's attempt to make an important film, “Katie Tippel” may seem like his attempt to make a respectable film. After all, this is a costume drama, by the far the most highfalutin of all genres. Yet the period setting is not used as an excuse for glitz and glamour. “Katie Tippel” is rooted in gritty realism. This is most apparent in the frightful conditions Katie has to work in. In the fabric factory, she shoves her hands into burning, poisonous liquid. The solution makes her fingernails bleed. During lunch, the other women bully her, throwing her bread into the acidic compound. Even after hooking up with Hugo, Katie is abused. When sent to spy on small businesses, a shop owner becomes angry and shoves the girl's face in her hot chocolate. Katie's existence is a hard one.

Even in ostensibly a respectable genre, Paul Verhoeven can't suppress his natural inclination towards perversion. The film features quite a bit of sex and nudity. On the boat to Amsterdam, Katie finds her sister screwing a sailor under the main deck. After that same sister gets work in a brothel, we're greeted to a graphic scene of her masturbating for a client. Once Katie begins working the streets, she gives a customer an over-the-pants hand job. And, yes, we see Rutger Hauer's junk again. Hugo flashes the audience after spending the night with Katie. It seems Paul just can't help himself.

The director's tendency towards combining harrowing content with a sick sense of humor crops up in maybe “Katie Tippel's” most memorable sequence. Katie stays after hours at the hat shop, working on some paper work. To amuse herself, she makes shadow puppets on the wall. Soon, her innocent hand puppets of ducks and dogs are greeted by the silhouette of an erection. What follows is a graphic rape scene, the building's owner forcing himself on the girl and graphically taking her virginity. It's a startling moment, made all the more sickening by the obvious humor in the moment preceding it.

That moment seems to predict similar scenes in later Verhoven films, like “Showgirls” and “Elle.” There are other parallels to draw between “Katie Tippel” and those movies, in that they're almost feminist text. The film has an odd relationship with female sexuality. At first, Katie fears her own sexuality. She's disgusted by her sister's antics. Her initial forays into prostitution are awkward and deeply uncomfortable for her. In time, however, Katie learns that sleeping with powerful men has certain benefits. The conclusion sees her trading the bed of a somewhat rich man for the bed of a much richer man. Katie's body isn't all she has to offer. She's intelligent and wily. Yet, in 1880s Amsterdam, it seems women had few other options for social advancement.

The approach to romance in “Turkish Delight” was deeply unsentimental. That tough approach to matters of the heart continues in “Katie Tippel.” This callous streak is provided early on when a puppy drowns to death and then has its body tossed in the commode. The titular character's family doesn't provide her with much comfort. Her older sister is especially terrible to her, chasing her around the house and punching her. To show how big of a bitch she is, the same sister uses pages from Katie's books – her most prized possession – as toilet paper. Even her younger siblings treat her badly. After rescuing her from a pedophile, the boy actually calls Katie a bitch. After finally finding riches, you'd think they'd be happy for her. Instead, her mother and father are angry that she's leaving home. No wonder Katie never looks back. These people treat her terribly.

After the success of “Turkish Delight,” perhaps Verhoeven knew not to mess with things to much. “Katie Tippel” is a reunion with that film's two stars. Monique van de Ven stars as Katie. Verhoeven casts van de Ven in his last film because she projected a certain innocence, no matter what the scene around her was like. She brings a similar energy to Katie. At first anyway. In the beginning, Van de Ven plays Katie as a very smart girl unprepared for how cruel the world can be. As the story goes on, her heart hardens, the girl becoming more cynical about what it takes to succeed. Monique van de Ven is very good in the role, making the audience really relate and love Katie.

Naturally, Rutger Hauer is back too. Sporting an excellent mustache, he appears as Hugo, Katie's suitor. It's a very different role from “Turkish Delight's” passionate, vulgar Eric. Hugo is very reserved, comfortable living a life of privilege. Yet Hauer gifts the character with little personality quirks, such as a mischievous smile or the way he plays with his cane. Also among the supporting cast is Peter Faber as George, the painter and revolutionary who introduces Katie to Hugo. Faber makes George a more sympathetic character than his rich friends.

“Katie Tippel” ends rather abruptly. After leaving Hugo, Katie is invited into the home of another rich man. The two seem to strike up a romance before the screen fades to grey. A dull infographic then informs us that the movie was based on a true story, that this film was a tribute to Neel Doff's strengths and character. If that seems sudden, that's because it wasn't the original ending. Instead, the film was meant to conclude with an epilogue set several years into the future. It would've shown Katie now married to the rich man and spitting on the revolting workers outside her mansion, having shifted from a struggling worker to part of the bourgeois. Verhoeven can only hint at this darker ending but an observant viewer can pick up on how cruel Katie treats people once she becomes rich.

As far as production values go, “Katie Tippel” is a fine film. Many of the costumes are opulent, especially the fancy gowns Katie wears after partnering with Hugo. The production design is very nice, the film successfully transporting the viewer back to 1880s Holland. The music, from Rogier van Otterloo, is sweeping. At times, the music is almost too pastoral for the rough content of the film. Lastly, Verhoeven's visual presentation continues to grow. One especially memorable shot in “Katie Tippel” has the camera following Katie's eyes as she looks up at the mirror on the ceiling.

Ultimately, “Katie Tippel” doesn't have the anarchic energy or impressive passion that “Turkish Delight” had. Still, it's a very good film. The lead performances are excellent. The movie contains several impressive, powerful sequences. It's a motion picture that makes you feel many different things, sometimes conflicting emotions in the same scene. While it wouldn't match the success of “Turkish Delight,” the picture would still be a success for Paul Verhoeven, cementing his reputation as one of the biggest names in Dutch cinema. [Grade: B]

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