MARRAKECH, Morocco — Dutch helmer Paul Verhoeven, whose most recent pic, “Elle”, is France’s entry to the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, received a career tribute at the 16th Marrakech International Film Festival, which he said was the first time he has accepted such a homage.
The ceremony was preceded by a screening of “Robocop” in Marrakech’s Place Jemaa el-Fna.
The career tribute included a screening of “Elle,” presented by lead actress Isabelle Huppert, who was Marrakech jury president in 2014 and in recent weeks has received three major best actress awards – at the Gotham Awards, and from the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. and New York Film Critics Circle.
Greeting the audience in Arabic, to large applause, Huppert said that, “since his first film, ‘Turkish Delight’ we have been captivated by his obsessions, provocative spirit and his taste for representing the shock of raw violence.”
“Soldiers of Orange”, which received a Golden Globe nomination for best foreign language film in 1980, first caught the attention of Steven Spielberg, who invited Verhoeven to film in the U.S. but that it was only after “Flesh and Blood” that he finally considered working on the other side of the Atlantic.
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“Paul adapted to working in Hollywood with insolence and brilliance, he imposed his fantasies and style. Like Milos Forman and Roman Polanksi before him, he brought a European influence to American cinema,” Huppert said.
After listing his key Hollywood pics, including what she called the “sulphurous” “Basic Instinct,” Huppert spoke about her experience as lead actress on “Elle,” which competed this year at Cannes.
“For me the adventure of this film was extraordinary. I always dreamt of working with Paul since I was very young and first discovered ‘Turkish Delight.’ Orson Welles once said that a director shouldn’t impose a method on an actor. What’s important is what actors will do. You should discover which direction they will go and make actors believe that they are better than in reality. He is right. With you Paul, one feels free. You gave me confidence to go beyond my own limits,” Huppert added.
She went on: “That is what a great director is. Welles also said that everyone should be happy during the shoot. Well we were all happy while making this film, and this evening I feel so happy to give you this prize and to say to you and to everyone, that I love you, because of your freedom, immense talent and singularity, that is so essential for cinema.”
Verhoeven took the stage to explain that the last and only other time that he was in Marrakech was over 20 years ago, when he was preparing a film about the Crusades, with Arnold Schwarzenegger. They traveled to Casablanca, Marrakech, Ouarzazate and the Sahara desert,
and started to build the streets and walls of Jerusalem. But Carolco, its production company, was in financial problems and ultimately went bankrupt.“I really regret never making it. I thought it would have been something wonderful,” he added.
At the age of 78, this was the first time he had received a career tribute, he said, thanking Huppert for her affection and praise.
“Working with Isabelle was probably the most inspiring collaboration with an actor or actress in my entire life. She is an actress beyond the norm and beyond the super norm. Unique in her class. I have never worked with an actress who is so mysterious to a certain degree and so talented and courageous,” Verhoeven said.
He added: “It’s interesting because we didn’t talk too much about character or psychology. We talked more about the color of her dress, than why she makes the strange expressions and moves you will see her make in this film. I am very happy that Isabelle lives on this planet and was working with me.”
Talking about “Elle,” Verhoeven says that he slowly realized he would have to shoot it in French, which came as a shock, because he would have to talk to everyone in French.
“It gave me terrible headaches for months before shooting, but when I started that all disappeared because I had such a wonderful cast and crew. For me in a way, it was like coming back to Europe again, after a long stay in the United States.”
Huppert rounded off by saying that Verhoeven’s French was excellent and that it was an extraordinary adventure because of the helmer’s wild imagination and the strength and force of his directing vision.
“He carries everyone with ease, and courteousness. While on screen we see extraordinary violence, disturbing images that shake the status quo and that challenge established ideas, the shoot itself had incredible energy and good humor. These were wonderful, gentle weeks, like an enchanted period for me.”
Prior to the ceremony, Verhoeven provided a 90-minute masterclass in Marrakech, in which he provided further insights into his working methods and the experience of making “Elle.”
He began by saying that he is optimistic and that perhaps he is going in the right direction, while admitting that there are always setbacks.
“Even with ‘Elle’ it wasn’t clear that it would be highly praised. It wasn’t even clear at the beginning that Isabelle Huppert would be the star in the film. Although now I can’t imagine how I could have made it without her. I don’t believe that any other actress in the world could have done what she did. She’s audacious and has enormous talent.”
He said that he felt that his Hollywood career was over in 2002, after making “Hollow Men,” but now thinks that it’s back on track and he would love to work in France again, because of the rich talent pool.
He then revealed that the most challenging aspect of having made “Elle” was perhaps dealing with the American controversies that have followed the movie since its release.
“In all countries in Europe where the film has been released – England, France, Belgium, Holland, Spain etc – there has been no controversy, but now that it has been released in the U.S. it’s already a problem, in terms of the response to rape shown in the film. Some critics were very angry.”
He said that in the beginning he and his producer Saïd Ben Saïd, had thought of setting the film in the U.S. and shooting in English, “but when we started to talk about co-financing and casting we received an absolute no. Any actress of name immediately said no. That went on for a few months. It seemed to be going nowhere. We realized we couldn’t make this movie in the U.S. not just for formal reasons but because of the morals of the movie. So we had to go back to France.”
Verhoeven says it was scary to work in another culture and other language, although he says that when he was 17 he lived for a year in northern France and had a French girlfriend – but that was 60 years ago. He took a crash course in French while living in Holland, 10 hours a day, and then did everything in French.
“Isabelle basically set the tone for the movie, aspects such as the sense of irony. The character was in her hands. Many scenes could have been done in so many bad ways. But she always found the best way to be innovative and avoid cliche,” Verhoeven said.
He added: “She finds new ways to jump over things that could easily be a cliche. She sees the pitfalls and moves around them.”
The Dutch helmer explained that he doesn’t go into depth in relation to the psychology of each character, and instead follows Hitchcock’s maxim that one should cast the actor because people know them in s specific way.
“I cast an actor because of the way that they are seen by the audience. In ‘North by Northwest’ we know why Hitchcock used Cary Grant instead of James Stewart. He brought the right mix of lightness and a little wink wink. The first thing that I expect from an actor is that they will be what they have been before – a prolongation and extension of what they have already done.”
He explained that when casting Huppert he felt that her character had a deep connection with her role with Haneke’s “Piano Teacher” and even in “Amour” as the daughter.
“She has that special kind of coldness and strangeness. But she can also do very different roles. I wanted that depth.”
He said they kept clear of psychology, which kept up the surprise factor.
“In the last third of the film when her character discovers who raped her, she goes in the opposite direction to what we would normally expect. Instead of looking for revenge she stretches out her hand. We didn’t discuss this. We didn’t try to know exactly what she felt and how she would behave. I felt from the first moment, one-to-two days into the shoot that I should never try to talk too much or try to explain things. Everything she did was correct and often better than what I had in mind.”
Verhoeven also talked about how he shrugs off criticism which has always dogged his films, saying that even in the beginning of his career, with “Spetters”, the film was very successful but was criticized a great deal, with people saying that he had gone too far.
He explained that it was such criticism which led him to abandon the Netherlands and leave for Hollywood, because the juries that handed out subsidies began to refuse to support his projects.
“At the time ,the people on the juries were very left wing and the movies I made were seen as not being intellectual or sociological enough, without any philosophical base. They felt that I should not get state money any more.”
Verhoeven said that it was his wife who forced him to go to Hollywood- “She felt that I should not live in this humiliating situation and kneel down to the committees.”
He explained that he doesn’t try to be provocative but has always been criticized from some quarters. “I am not looking for provocation. I film what I think is reality.”
Even for his first U.S. pic, “Robocop,” Verhoeven had to recut the film seven-to-eight times before it could be released and was only released in the director’s cut in Europe.
In relation to “Starship Troopers,” he said he was also surprised by criticism that the film was proto-fascist because he was deliberately trying to mock such movements, and added that the film was perhaps unfortunately prescient of trends in America.
He says that several shots were directly inspired by Leni Riefenstahl’s 1934 Nazi propaganda film “Triumph of the Will.”
“A lot of critics didn’t see what we were doing. In the Washington Post, they said that myself and the writer were neo-Nazis. It’s amazing that they didn’t see we were criticizing the heroes in the story. I hope the film isn’t too prophetic.”
For the final question of the masterclass, Verhoeven said that his favorite Russian film of all time is Eisenstein’s classic “Ivan the Terrible, Part II” which he says he has watched once or twice a year after first seeing it as a student.
“I was so impressed by the film, I suddenly realized that film is an art form. It’s a wonderful movie. I always wanted to make something like that.”