It’s actually just the tip of an iceberg that encompasses an online component, mobile apps and a TV show in his native Netherlands, but Paul Verhoeven’s 50-minute-long “Tricked” (“Steekspel“) provided what the Rome Film Festival so far has rather lacked: sheer entertainment value. A twisty-turny arch drama in which a philandering man’s chickens come home to roost in every area of his life, it feels like not a single scene passes without a major revelation occurring somewhere. As a result it’s kind of a blast, with fully enough plot to fill a two-hour feature crammed efficiently into less than half that time in a manner that demands nothing from you except that you enjoy the ride.
The story begins with a birthday party, shot in a loose, handheld style that almost seems dogme-influenced until the first of the soapy elements comes into play: Nadya, a young woman with whom the birthday boy had an extramarital affair, shows up at the party heavily pregnant, setting tongues wagging and putting cats amongst pigeons. To say any more would spoil the pleasure of trying to work out for yourselves ahead of time which secret is going to be exposed next and what hidden agenda it will reveal, but in any case, the real story of “Tricked” is not its plot, but how it came into being.
The brainchild of producer Rene Mioch, the idea was that, under the guardianship and eventual direction of Verhoeven, writer Kim van Kooten would write the first five pages of a script, which would then be released to the Dutch public. Through various channels the public were encouraged to participate in various ways – either by filming the five pages as written (resulting in a lot of different retellings of the same couple of scenes), or by submitting, in several chronological instalments, their ideas for where the story should go next. In the end, Verhoeven found himself sifting through hundreds upon hundreds of scripts for each installment, which he would shoot without him, or his actors, knowing what the following one would be. It undoubtedly works to the film’s advantage, as part of the reason we might fail to see around the next corner is that the actors are themselves in the dark, and so their performances in one scene give no subconcious information away about the next.
Truthfully, though, the audience participation side of the project made us both intrigued and wary of the film at first. Call us cynical, but “crowdsourced” can become a byword for judgement by committee, which in our experience has pretty much never led to anything other than shite. But where the producers avoided that was in hiring Verhoeven, (who if nothing else has serious storytelling chops) and then giving him not just input, but control over which parts of which scripts would be chosen, and how those disparate elements would be knitted back into a coherent film. In the discussion that followed the screening, Verhoeven admitted that he had expected to maybe get 50 scripts in, not the 700 that he finally did receive, and that out of those he thought maybe three, maybe one, would be usable in its entirety. Instead, he found himself following certain ideas from one submission, and tracking them into a notion from another. Not only did this create the logistical issue of him and his writers having to go through every page of every script to mine for tiny nuggets (they used some kind of color-coding system, apparently), but then what do you do with that pile of post-its at the end? Verhoeven’s answer was refreshingly traditional, for all this project’s experimental feel: you need a professional writer, or two, someone who understands the rules of drama, to take these beats and make them flow. So no, he’s not advocating the excision of the writer from the process at all. In fact, he said, the submissions he thought least of were the ones that did not respect van Kooten’s original intentions in those first five pages – her tone, her humour, her style.
However while the path may have been tortuous and may have involved the input of many members of the Dutch public, in the end, “Tricked” is not just a Verhoeven film. It’s a film from a Verhoeven who has been, in his own words, “rejuvenated” by the project. As assured and entertaining as anything in his back catalogue, it’s a shame that its unusual length may preclude it from getting a theatrical release stateside, unless, as they seem to be doing here, it is packaged into a feature presentation along with a documentary on the making-of called “Paul’s Experience.” But seeing it on the small screen, where it will definitely find a home, would not diminish its charms by much: it’s not art, nor does it want to be, but its constant revelations and twists won over this festival audience entirely. Whether that’s because of, or despite, the influence of an audience in its creation, we cannot tell, but under a steady guiding hand, maybe there’s hope for crowdsourcing yet. [B+]