Verhoeven’s new film, Benedetta, is another controversial creation.
Paul Verhoeven at Cannes Film Festival, with two actresses from his film, Benedetta(photo credit: REUTERS)
The Cannes Film Festival has only reached its half-point, and it’s easy to say which is the most discussed and scandalous film thus far: Benedetta, which was screened as part of the official competition and has raised many mixed reviews. Some define it as a masterpiece, while others classify it as trash; some say it’s feminist or post-feminist, while others accuse it of misogyny; some applauded, and some pelted it with rotten tomatoes.
These reviews are not surprising considering the director of Benedetta: Paul Verhoeven, who is behind most debatable films of our generation; included in which are which are Basic Instinct, Showgirls and Her. The Dutch creator returns to a genre he had some experience with in the 80’s with Flesh+Blood, his first film in English.
This time it’s a French-speaking film that takes us on a journey to the dark side of an Italian nunnery in the 17th century. It’s named for the woman who claimed Jesus had entered her body, and thus manages to manipulate the nuns and rule them. At the same time she begins an affair with one of the nuns, and into this inferno enters a plague that spreads outside the nunnery. This isn’t a hint at coronavirus, as Benedetta was filmed two years ago, and its premier was pushed off with the delay of the Cannes Festival last year.
So what is in the film?
What isn’t in it? It’s said that the scene in which the nuns use a religious idol as a sex toy is one of the more refined moments of the film, which is full of violence and sex – the usual for Verhoeven.
“Some of the reviews complain about how I describe the nuns sitting on the toilet together,” Verhoeven told me in an exclusive interview with Israeli media in the Riviera. “They complain as though I’ve done something awful, but the collective relieving of oneself is an accepted and natural act. When I was in the military, we did it all the time, and it was the same in nunneries.
“Today’s puritanism is unbearable, and I don’t believe it will last long. How long will it hold up? Maybe ten years, maybe 20, and maybe 30, but not more than that. The human body is not holy. In the Holland of the 70’s, and also here in the Riviera, women would walk around topless and no-one made a big deal of it. Today people once again treat the body like some forbidden fruit.”
The film is based on Judith Brown’s non-fiction book, which documented the first known cases of homo-sexual affairs between the nuns. According to Verhoeven, most of what happens in the film is historically accurate.
“Some people don’t care about the past, but I do,” he said. “I made the film to show the changes we’ve made as a society. There are places where we’ve regressed, and there are places where we have progressed. These days, no-one in the Western world will make a big deal of a lesbian affair. In nunneries of those days, it was a terrible sin.”
So how accurate are the details of the film?
“I know that everyone is very curious about the sex toy scene. I don’t know why everyone is so upset. A lot of women use sex toys, so what? Sexual desire is the most natural thing there is.
“The use of sex toys does not appear in the book I based the move off of, so why did we include it? To intensify the drama. I wanted one of the characters to take the focus. But in those days, a lesbian affair was the cause merely for punishment, not execution. The use of a sex toy, on the other hand, was cause for being burned at the stake.”
The interview is happening with another six reporters from around Europe, including one Dutchman who, of course, is excited to chat with the most infamous and successful of his people’s directors. One of the six tells Verhoeven that the film is something of a farce.
“I didn’t intend for it to be a farce,” he replied. “If that’s what you think, I’ve failed. At one of the most climactic moments, a nun commits suicide. It’s funny, isn’t it? I don’t even think the film is a dark comedy. It’s a tragedy. What’s true is that there is humor in it. I always include some humor next to violence, like I did in Robocop and Total Recall, and also in Basic Instinct.”
Even though the interview is being conducted in honor of Benedetta, it is expected that at some point quotes from Sharon Stone, who starred in Basic Instinct and Total Recall, would come up.
In her autobiography, that was released not long ago, Stone complains about the director. She wrote that he belittled her, insisted on calling her Karen even though he knew her real name and generally didn’t respect her. Worst of all, she claims that he manipulated her into exposing full nudity in Basic Instinct, even though he promised her that the audience wouldn’t see anything. And if that’s not enough, she discovered that she was lied to only in the pre-premier screening, while all around her were strange men who were licking their lips.
“Sharon Stone has been lying for 30 years,” Verhoeven said about this. “We are on good terms, and in this case we just agreed that we remember things differently. My memory is different to hers and my memory is also better.”
So what does he remember?
“How could she have filmed that scene without knowing what was happening? The camera is right there. She’s making it all up. She also never slapped me as she claims she did. She didn’t really have a problem in real-time. There is also one interesting detail that she chooses to omit for some reason: at the time, immediately after filming, she gifted me her underwear.”
Verhoeven continues his obsession with blondes also in Benedetta, which stars the incredible Virginie Efira, one of the most appreciated rising stars in France.
“I don’t think I’ll have the same story with her as I did with Sharon Stone,” said the director. “She got the script before filming. She knew exactly how I was filming each and every scene, and we discussed everything.”
The reviews at Cannes where mixed, but what happens when the film arrives in the US? Presumably it won’t be so tolerated there.
“I assume the attitude will change among different countries, depending on the general treatment of sex and nudity. In the US they will probably react differently, but in Holland we are very liberal. In the last few years, when we film a sex scene in Hollywood, the production has a new job called “intimacy coordinator.” That sounds to me like a very odd idea, and I have not used it.”
Verhoeven waited two years until the film was put to an audience because of the constraints of COVID-19 ” and it was awful,” he said.
“The wait was difficult, and I also underwent hip surgery at the time. Now that the film has been released out in the world, I feel very distanced from it. I sat in the premier and watched it like someone else directed it. The whole time I was saying to myself ‘it’s a shame I didn’t do it like this, it’s a shame I didn’t make it differently.’ I only developed confidence and began to believe in the film in the middle of the screening.”
Verhoeven is already 82, but he still has many plans in mind.
“I want to direct a film about Jesus’s life, among others. Some of the greatest Dutch artists painted their best paintings at my age, and I too hope the best is yet to come.”
This article was originally published in Hebrew by Avner Shavit for Walla and translated to English by Ariella Marsden for The Jerusalem Post.