Spetters (Paul Verhoeven, 1980)

by Douglas Buck December 25, 2017 3 minutes (610 words) 35mm Cinémathèque québécoise

It’s hard not to have a warm spot for those big budget, candy-coated, indulgent acts of cheeky cinematic moral boundary-pushing acts brought to us by Paul Verhoeven, starting with Robocop in 1987, as he assaulted those American prurient attitudes (mind you, usually with nothing remotely close to adult ambition, instead by catering to much more naughty, adolescent – though entertaining as hell – silliness, from the much discussed, indelicately cheeky glimpses of mid-crossed leg Sharon Stone’s labia in Basic Instinct to the massive gunshot bloodletting in Robocop that required no less than eleven assessments from the MPAA before being granted an R rating), and I’d always been intrigued by the interesting things I’d heard about the five or six films the Dutch director had made back at home (and the claims of their greater maturity and even social significance – though, of course, even his splashiest silly work like Showgirls isn’t entirely bereft of a satirical bent) before the filmmaker dropped anchor in Hollywood and never looked back.

Fortunately, this one-off screening at the CQ (been spending a lot of viewing time there, lately, speaking to some good programming decisions on their part, I dare say) gave me a chance to check out one of them, the highly entertaining very-Verhoeven Spetters, a grimy kind of coming of age tale (filled with tons of muddy motor-bike action, sex and more dicks flailing about on display then you’ll see if you combine an entire decade’s worth of non-porn American films) following the lives of three young dirt-bike racers in Rotterdam desperate to escape their working class lives and dreaming of becoming professional racers, who all get seduced by a young girl working a hot dog stand at the races with her brother (who has a thing for rough gay trade). Eventually, through their individual seductions by the girl (whose trying to see what each of them has to offer her as a way out of the drudgery as well), the boys each learn about who they are and what life is gonna bring; one ends up in a wheelchair after a horrific suicide attempt on a highway, the other comes to terms with his homosexuality (after being gang-raped into ‘reality’ by the woman’s brother) and the other humiliated by his hero (a young very cool Rutger Hauer, playing the professional super-cool biker the boys all aspire to be) with the realization he isn’t anywhere near good enough.

Apparently, it was after the extreme backlash Verhoeven faced over the film, with it called anti-woman, anti-gay, anti-Christian, anti-invalid and on and on, that led him to finally get the fuck out of dodge and head for America (and to this country’s moral outrage against his work, even without the allowance anymore of the swinging dicks and explicit male gang-rape). With its typically Verhoeven sense of indulgence (as a friend and I discussed after the movie, the only thing missing was one of the boys getting mixed up in heavy drugs – THEN the entire spectrum would have been covered!) and entertaining direction, it’s hard for me to call the film particularly offensive (or at all actually). As with something like his later American Showgirls (considered a debacle at the time), yes, there’s a lot of questionable underlying thematic view-points, and while Spetters is less jaw-droppingly over-the-top uniquely wonky as that crazy film, there’s still a sort of understanding that this is all part of the almost innocent mishmash of colourful amusement and naughtiness that Verhoeven aspires to… and if you get outraged over it, you’re just ultimately letting him take the piss out of you.

Spetters (Paul Verhoeven, 1980)

Douglas Buck. Filmmaker. Full-time cinephile. Part-time electrical engineer. You can also follow Buck on “Buck a Review,” his film column of smart, snappy, at times irreverent reviews.

Buck A Review   coming-of-age   dutch cinema   paul verhoeven