Paul Verhoeven’s Turkish Delight (1973)

It takes some effort to recognize Paul Verhoeven’s importance as a filmmaker and accord him his rightful place in the top rung. The reason is evidently that he works with sensationalist material teeming with sex and violence. He is best known for his American work — like Robocop (1987), Starship Troopers (1997), Basic Instinct (1992) and the much abused Showgirls (1995). While I am rather ambivalent about Basic Instinct, I would not hesitate to put the remaining films in my list of top American films because of their ability to describe a society/ social attitudes vividly to those outside — although his method cannot be described as straightforward.

What Verhoeven does is to use the conventions of known genres (like the alien film in Starship Troopers), but in an exaggerated way to bring the film close to satire with a distinct comic-book feel to it. Starship Troopers — which is about mankind’s war with a bug-infested planet and the gigantic insects populating it — may even be seen as anticipating American/western interventions in Iraq and Libya, the film concluding on a triumphant note with soldiers getting selfies with the fearsome bug leader (reminiscent of Gadaffi or Saddam) tragically enmeshed in a net and powerless. Xenophobia is satirized through people at home delightedly squashing cockroaches as if in sympathy for the troopers fighting bugs far away. Turkish Delight is one of his earliest films, made in Holland before he succeeded phenomenally in Hollywood. This is art-house cinema rather than generic material reworked into something close to satire/parody.

Rutger Hauer and Monique van de Ven in Turkish Delight

Turkish Delight is an ‘erotic love story’ about a bohemian sculptor Eric Vonk (Rutger Hauer) and there is virtually nothing taboo that the film does not embrace in its portrayal of his tempestuous relationship with Monique (Olga Stapels); not masturbation, nor sodomy nor urination nor defecation. Eric’s target (although not Verhoeven’s) appears to be bourgeois Dutch society although there is little indication that this society is shocked by his acts or conduct. While bourgeois gatherings are satirised we do not see them from Eric’s ‘honest’ viewpoint, nor is there any comment on their ‘falsity’. Since Eric’s art is not treated seriously (i.e.: they do not represent an act of conscious rebellion) he becomes symptomatic of a society living intensely but entirely in the present. And the only place it can lead to is death because like all things which have passed and to which one has been indifferent, one too must pass.

Turkish Delight appeared three years after Love Story (1970), a genteel story of love ending in the terminal illness and death of one of the lovers. But where that film was about ‘spiritual love’ which is eternal since the spirit does not perish, Verhoeven’s is about the flesh. The ‘tragic’ conclusion of Turkish Delight is therefore savage in its bluntness. Satire thrives on the pretences and blindnesses of social life, and our claim upon immortality — through religion and art — may be our greatest blindness because the ‘void’ is something we cannot countenance

MK Raghavendra

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