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Film: Sex and violence? It's only satire

The nudity in `Showgirls' was numbing, the derision deafening. `Starship Trooper' has had Paul Verhoeven labelled a Nazi. He says his movies satirise the States. Nick Hasted wonders if he, too, has been seduced by what he would mock

People think Paul Verhoeven is a joke. Presented with the script to Showgirls, he asked, "How can we get more tits into this movie?" On set, it is claimed he is a monster. On screen, he is the sex-and-violence man. From Robocop to Total Recall, Basic Instinct to his latest, Starship Troopers, all anyone sees are the flailing bodies, in agony or ecstasy. He is a thug, the crudest man in Hollywood.

Once, he was written about more kindly. Once, he was an acclaimed art- house director from Holland, maker of Spetters, The Fourth Man and more. They were about sex and violence, too. But outside his homeland, the subtitles made people peer more closely, to understand the intent of his excess.

Look at his Hollywood films with the same care, and the cartoon Verhoeven disappears. For the last decade, this middle-aged European intellectual has been using the codes and cliches of American cinema to satirise America. His films are all about sex and violence. But so is America. And so is he.

Starship Troopers is a perfect example of the twilight zone Verhoeven inhabits. It is about far-future American teenagers, who talk as if everything is a football game, or the high school dance. Primed by propaganda, they sign up to fight bugs in Outer Space, dressed as Nazis. The Washington Post saw the uniforms, and said Verhoeven was a Nazi. British critics have heard the dialogue, and stopped thinking. No one seems to have considered that Verhoeven knew what he was doing; that his characters were supposed to be naive, manipulatable. It's an allegory of American fascism. It's a Giant Bug movie, too.

Verhoeven, 57, is greying but raffish, his face lean, eyes alert. His mind is sharp, open. "You could call it subversion," he says of Starship Troopers. "I use cliches seriously, knowing they're cliches. In painting, it's a well-known technique." One reason Verhoeven's films are misinterpreted is that he will not separate himself from those cliches. He will not nudge you in the ribs. But in a Hollywood where most characters are cliches, his satire tends to be ignored. Do such reactions make him think he should be more direct? "That's quite possible," he sighs. "They don't seem to get the point. I might have to be more clear. But I can't be. There's something in me that refuses. It would make me something else, a preacher, or a prophet. Life is not clear."

Showgirls (1995) deafened critics to Verhoeven, drowned him in derision. Like his others, it shadowed what it satirised, offered no escape. Its subject made it more than most could take. Sharon Stone's flash in Basic Instinct turned out to be foreplay. Showgirls' women are naked all the time, till you're numb at the sight. It traps you in a cold world, where everyone exploits, every sight is gaudy. In theory, it is set in Vegas. But the last shot shows the "heroine" heading for LA. It is the most brutal of Hollywood satires. Its fans include Quentin Tarantino. "It's about the use of the sex tool to get somewhere," Verhoeven agrees. "It was advertised in the United States like a peepshow, like it would give you a hard-on. The movie's not like that. The movie makes sure that if you had an erection, you'll lose it in five minutes." Showgirls is what's best and worst in Verhoeven. It smothers itself in its subject. But still, something in it rings false. Verhoeven shocked Dutch audiences long ago with frank nudity, shameless sex. But his attitude seems to have darkened. Showgirls appears to revel in its cliched, pneumatic women, to have toppled too far into what it attacks. Was this satire? Or did Verhoeven leer at those women, too?

"Personally, I would prefer a woman who has a body showing that she was alive, or that life has gone through her," he says. "From a sexual point of view, I'm much more attracted by a body that is vulnerable. Even in Basic Instinct, Sharon's body is perfect, isn't it? Jeanne Tripplehom's body is a bit softer, and things are not so perfect. I think that's much more sexy. That's much more appealing to me than Sharon, who's sculptured, streamlined."

But Verhoeven has not shown such life in female bodies, in a long time. Mike Figgis recently commented on what a cold town Hollywood is sexually. Does Verhoeven think it is Hollywood

itself which has taken his films so far from his own feelings, made them cold and hard? "That's quite possible," he replies. "Because the people that get to the top are all like that. It might include myself. You can think that you'll be different, but I don't know how much seduction has taken place already, after 10 years. I can't give a good answer to that. I could say, `Of course not.' There's a good chance I'm already there."

Showgirls loses perspective. It becomes what it's trying to attack. "Yeah, I know. It balances very narrowly on that line. Perhaps I didn't get anything of what I wanted. It's about exploitation, but perhaps it is really exploitative. It's possible that ultimately it went in that direction. Not all the time. I may have been seduced myself."

Verhoeven's women are still unique. There aren't many in cinema like Jennifer Jason Leigh in Flesh & Blood (1985), a gang-raped princess who seduces the men who raped her, takes them over. In his private life, Verhoeven's experience has been of strong women, from his mother to his wife. It may be why his films are called misogynist, why they take such odd twists. Perhaps he doesn't know that women can be exploited. "I might have taken all those things from my wife," he considers. "That's quite possible, but I don't know. We'd need three hours to find out,"

Starship Troopers at least makes a start in reuniting Verhoeven's feelings about women and the way his films show them. Its most sympathetic character, Dizzy, is a tough, sexual soldier who's also weak, pining for a boy. "That's the character that I added to the script," he says, pleased. "The other girl in the film is like my others, she knows what she wants and she gets it. Dizzy is different. I like her the most."

In the future, we may get to see the film Showgirls was promised as; the real erotic thoughts of this conflicted, fascinating soul. "I haven't done that in a long time," Verhoeven ponders, "Although it's kind of a date-rape, the scene with Jeanne Tripplehorn and Michael Douglas in Basic Instinct is erotic to me. It's much stronger than the big scene between Michael and Sharon. That was just about killing. I don't want to do that again."

Starship Troopers is on general release from Jan 2