Paul Verhoeven makes movies as if controversy keeps him warm at night. In 1980 he made “Spetters” (Dutch for “Babes”), which has been described as “the sexually explicit answer to ‘Grease,'” complete with depictions of sexual sadism. Verhoeven said it inspired his native Holland to create NASA — the National Anti-Spetters Association — and to cut off his funding. That led to a move to Hollywood, where he made films like “Basic Instinct” and “Showgirls.” More recently he’s favored France, which allows him more freedom to pursue racy subject matter without worrying about what he calls America’s “Puritan” attitudes about sex.
Cannes debut “Benedetta” is his latest provocation, a true story about 17th-century Italian lesbian nuns who were punished for their sins by the patriarchal Catholic Church. This intense religious drama has echoes of Verhoeven’s 1985 Orion Pictures flop “Flesh and Blood,” a historical romance starring Rutger Hauer and Jennifer Jason Leigh that featured bloody violence, rape, and the Plague.
Little did he know that the world would endure another plague year, which delayed a planned 2020 Cannes debut for “Benedetta.” Love him or leave him, Verhoeven has a showman’s instinct: He knows how to entertain. IFC snapped up the film before the festival, partly because it was too provocative for any studio specialty division to handle. I sat down with Verhoeven in Cannes to find out just what the 82-year-old filmmaker had in mind.
How does it feel to be back at Cannes?
There’s something depressing about the whole thing. It took me some time, because I felt a bit alienated from the movie, even in the projection here. I was looking at the movie like somebody else had done it.
Because you finished it so long ago?
It was unpleasant. “Do I still like this? Am I wrong here?” Only after 60 minutes that I started to feel it was OK. Strange, sure. It’s nice that it’s now out and done, it hasn’t been hanging over you like a dark cloud.
You don’t know how it’s going to be received.
You go into a situation with a movie knowing for some people it’s going to be difficult. I realized people could feel provoked by it, yeah, sure, I knew, but you don’t know how much. I knew with “Showgirls,” “Basic Instinct,” and “Spetters,” there would be controversy. You made the movie. But I knew what people thought, the movie was there, I didn’t have to wait one and half years to wait for what people were thinking. It was difficult.
Why did you make this a French movie?
I got this book in English. When I started working on it [with “Elle” writer David Birke], I proposed it to [“Elle”] producer Saïd Ben Saïd. I felt medieval Italian society would be best represented in Italian, where it happens, but it would have been too difficult for me, that language. It would be a natural solution to do a French movie like “Elle,” which I originally thought would be an American movie. The original “Elle”script was written in English as an American thriller.
You couldn’t get any actresses to do it. This time you skipped that step, having learned your lesson.
With “Elle,” it became impossible to find any [American] actors who wanted to do it. In this case, especially, with this combination of religion and sexuality, it would be impossible to find anybody.
Watching “Benedetta,” I felt like you had fun making it.
Everybody had fun, even the actresses. Everyone liked to work on it, everybody came to the set with pleasure, and there were no problems, everybody was stepping forward to make it better. The fun was not laughing, it was everyone felt so motivated to come to the director or assistant director—”we have another solution here” — everything is really open and democratic. Everyone came in with ideas. I had fun. It was not laughing, it was the pleasure of doing something like that. Sometimes the story was funny, yeah.
I felt a lack of restraint. Like you’re saying, “I’m Paul Verhoeven, I’m 82, I can do whatever I want.”
Like a young boy. I feel like a child.
You’re not going to let other people’s judgments keep you from doing what you want to do.
Always, “If I like it, most people will like it too.” That’s 70 percent true of my movies. I trust myself. If I like it, others will like it.
As a director, you make decisions about tone and comic edge. You’re making fun of some characters, like the Nuncio [Lambert Wilson].
His diabolical impulses, a little bit. The character is a little exaggerated, it’s clear, but it’s not so different from the reality. What happened there is sometimes really strange and funny.
You’re debunking the power of the Catholic church, showing that these decisions were less motivated by religion than power.
In medieval times the Catholic Church was, let’s say, really guilty. What they did with the inquisition is horrible. What they did during the Crusades, killing all the Jewish people they met on the way, killing the people that killed Jesus. The church was horrible for hundreds of years. The idea that two women using an instrument in sexual encounters were burned at the stake? How can you imagine such diabolical thinking?
Did the two women survive?
We did not hear much about Bartholomea. Benedetta, they did not try to kill her, they put her in the prison of the convent, in an isolation room. She was forbidden to have contact with other nuns. She was allowed to go to mass. She wasn’t allowed to have dinner with other nuns, she had to sit on the floor for 40 years. The way the Catholic Church was in medieval times until now, is not Jesus. It’s something else.
“Benedetta” is based on the book “Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy,” by Judith Brown. You fictionalize it.
I don’t sexualize it. They did.
Not that much.
What about Benedetta’s fantastic visions of Jesus?
Fantasy was also there. The visions were reported. At the trial, Benedetta herself told the interrogators about her visions. This is an academic book. Judith Brown has written it all down: She had the visions of animals attacking her, lions and all kinds of strange things that would be silly in a film. I made it more Old Testament [using CGI serpents]. In the other vision, bad people were trying to rape her and beating her with sticks.
Did Benedetta use a Virgin Mary dildo?
That’s not in the book. They didn’t use an object in reality. I made her go to the stake. She was not ordered to go to the stake. I felt that was boring, I wanted in the end a revolution, for the population to turn against the Nuncio and free her. She could only go to the stake in 1625 if they had used an instrument.
Ah, there it is.
To be historically correct, there had to be an instrument.
So at the beginning of the film you introduce the little girl’s wooden Virgin Mary figure.
It developed slowly. I realized that historically I could not have her condemnation to the stake in 1625 because of lesbian behavior — that would have been wrong, historically false. Judy Brown talked about the instruments. First, in 1525 the Church thought if a woman had sex with a woman, she should be burned. Later, the Church softened it down and said, if a woman has sex with another woman, she should be punished — but she if had an instrument, she was burned at the stake.
So you were literally raising the stakes.
I am responsible for this thing, yes.
When you chose the tone of the movie, did you want us to enjoy the sexuality in a titillating way?
Why would I want that?
You do want that, of course.
I felt it was more that it was necessary to show what they’re doing!
There are ways of showing what they’re doing.
In America, yes.
You did embrace a voluptuous woman with streaked, dyed-blond hair, who is established as having brown hair as a child.
It’s kind of blondish, not brown, really this girl. We colored her hair in fact. I am never so sure about what you call titillating. But if you make a movie about lesbians who are forbidden to have sex, who were punished if two females have a sexual encounter, shouldn’t you see that they do it?
Absolutely. Your movie is more bodice-ripping than demure.
What is the problem with showing sex?
What does the question mean?
It’s about glamourizing with makeup, mascara, lipstick.
We didn’t do that. They didn’t use lipstick at all, we did something to make their lips a bit more brilliant. We may use makeup when there is a problem here or there, but not really makeup. Look at [“Benedetta” star] Virginie [Efira].
Why was she the right person to play Benedetta?
I based that completely on what happened in “Elle,” where she is the wife of the rapist, a Roman Catholic. She prays before dinner and talks about Jesus, and at the end you find out that she’s complicit with her husband who is raping women. She even thinks that her husband still has access to interesting sadomasochistic sex. “If she can do this, she can do that.” I didn’t audition her at all, I was convinced she could do it. And I sent her a script and said, “Do you want to do it?” Don’t forget on “Basic Instinct,” I cast Sharon Stone based on one 30-second scene in “Total Recall.”
Were you irritated at the Cannes press conference? You seemed annoyed.
Because every interview was about the dildo. And about nudity. Sexuality is the essence of life. Why are we so afraid to say that’s true? We are animals, we need babies, otherwise our species is falling apart. Why are we hiding that? Why are we so afraid to be seen as an animal? My dogs, the horses, they all do it, everyone does it, they do it all. We are animals. It’s like we want to hide that, as if there is no sex, as if there is no going to the restroom.
Did you ever consider using an intimacy coordinator?
In 2018, it didn’t exist. I would have refused and looked at Virginie and [co-star] Daphne [Patakia] as the sexual intimacy coordinators for themselves.
How did you express to them that they are in charge?
Because they read the script, I gave them storyboards, everything was laid out, every shot. We never discussed it further. They didn’t need it. They are confident, they knew I would not abuse it, I would never do anything they didn’t want to do. Of course, it’s something between you and the two actresses. I based it on trust, that you trust each other. Are you able always at every moment of doing these scenes to say, “This is not what I want.” And immediately everybody would change it. And it didn’t happen.
In Cannes, people loved debating “Annette” and “Benedetta,” because there’s so much to discuss. Some love them and some have issues.
It’s usually people who have issues, apparently. A lot of people did come to me saying congratulations. On the street even.
As for the plague, you didn’t predict a pandemic when you made this movie.
Are you sure?
Did you change it at all?
What was shown in Cannes a year ago is the same. No changes. We never thought about it even. Late in the months of the year, I realized the film showed something that was also happening at the same time. It dawned on me [that] the film was prophetic. It was not! If you make a movie in medieval times, the plague was there from 1100-1650 or so; it’s mentioned in the book. Also there was a famous comet, enormous all over Western Europe. It was there, let’s use it.
How do you feel about the future of what you do?
We are all afraid. I just read that Spielberg also made a streaming deal. That was threatening. He has a full right to do it. But you see the television screens people have these days. Why would people go to the cinema? Screens are already nearly cinema. I hope that the social aspect of being together, that the theaters survive. I still feel in whatever streaming or other format that “Lawrence of Arabia” is really a film and should be a film. It’s still absolutely amazing, what he did and how he got it and how difficult that must have been. I am in awe of David Lean, of course. I think that aspect is lost at the moment. We have superheroes, of course, but that’s not my thing.
What about you, what are you going to do?
I’m working for some time on a TV series, a remake of a book by Guy de Maupassant, “Bel Ami,” about a man who gets higher and higher in the TV world by having affairs with women who are above him.
The #MeToo movement isn’t going to like this.
I don’t know if we can solve that.