Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Black Book

Lowdown: Paul Verhoeven tackles World War II childhood memories.
Paul Verhoeven is one of those few directors I really look up to. He did one of my favorite films ever, Total Recall; he did other excellent films, like Starship Troopers; he’s had his flops, like Showgirls; and he’s not unfamiliar with controversy, especially the type that makes enough commotion to make studio accountants happy as with Basic Instinct. If there is a Verhoeven trademark, it is his tendency to outdo convention by going to extreme violence as per Robocop on one hand and sexuality of the type that annoys the good souls amongst us on the other.
Black Book is a two year old film by Verhoeven of which I didn’t hear much. Yet when I stumbled upon it at the video shop and noticed whose name is on it I knew I had to watch it; I wasn’t disappointed. For a start, this is a proper Dutch production that speaks Dutch and everything, making it the second Dutch film I got to watch recently (together with Twin Sisters).
Taking place between 1944 and 1945 (if we were to disregard its flashback setting), Black Book follows a young Dutch singer who happens to be Jewish and thus has to live in hiding at her Nazi occupied homeland. One night she is advised by a member of the resistance that the Nazis are on to her and that she should hide; the guy also tells her how to cross to the area freed by the Allies. She takes his advice, joins the rest of her family, but then the Nazis find them and kill everyone but her; she escapes.
Having nothing to lose and not much hope in life, our hero joins the resistance herself. Portrayed by the yet unfamiliar Carice van Houten, who is clearly on the better side of average in the looks department, the singer soon finds herself running high risk jobs for the resistance and managing to get away with it through her looks. Things do get complicated, though, when she discovered that her family’s death was no accident and that there’s something fishy with the resistance, while also getting involved with a Nazi officer who seems decent despite being a Nazi but is obviously the exception rather than the rule. With everything going against her, van Houten has a relentless fight on her hands. Indeed, if there is anything Black Book is trying to tell us, is that life is one relentless fight and that moments of peace are an intermediate illusion that should be treasured.
The main problem with Black Book is that there isn’t much to its plot that we haven’t seen on other films, be it World War II / Holocaust stuff, or be it your average thriller. On the positive side, Verhoeven claims (in his running commentary) that the stories in Black Book are all based on real events that happened to a collection of people in the Netherlands during the war; viewers who don’t listen to what Verhoeven has to say have to settle with a caption at the beginning of the film saying it’s inspired by real events.
Look and feel wise, Black Book feels very authentic. Style wise, it feels as authentic as films of the period and doesn't feel like your typical Verhoeven film; there are no Starship Troopers like transition scenes and no overuse of digital effects. What is clear to me, from watching the film and hearing Verhoeven (both here and in some of his previous films), is that Black Book is a highly personal affair for this director that spent his childhood years in occupied Holland and then in a recovering Holland. Verhoeven’s personal views on sensitive issues such as racism in contemporary society and about the way the so called War on Terror is going are also made plain obvious.
Verhoeven scene #1:
van Houten tries to hide her Jewish identity. Being the perfectionist she is, she dyes her hair blond. All her hair. I have to regard this scene as a tribute to the famous Sharon Stone scene from Basic Instinct.
In his running commentary, Verhoeven says he had to include this scene because the film would feel unreal without it. I disagree; I think this is an obvious Verhoeven touch. I do, however, think that our world is rotten if scenes such as this make a fuss. Why shouldn’t it be normal for normal life nudity to take part in our films?
Verhoeven scene #2:
van Houten is stripped naked and then a bucket full of feces is poured on her in yet another glimpse at the Verhoeven touch. For a film that’s marketed as an erotic thriller (at least according to the Blu-ray’s back cover), I have to say I didn’t find the scene particularly erotic despite the nudity. I guess it would appeal to very specific fetish lovers.
On a more serious note, though, I didn’t find Black Book particularly erotic. It is certainly no Basic Instinct, even if it has more nudity than your average film.
Technical assessment: The picture and the uncompressed PCM sound on this Blu-ray are obviously the result of a lesser budget than your major Hollywood production. Still, it’s a solid performance.
Overall: 3.5 out of 5 stars that reconfirmed Verhoeven’s status in my eyes.

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