Weekend!Movies: 'Black Book'
Almost seven years ago, Dutch director Paul Verhoeven (of 'Showgirls' infamy) ended a 15-year sojourn in Tinseltown with the appropriately titled 'Hollow Man.'
For a director with Verhoeven's basic instinct for excess to make such a dreary, cynical effects-fest from such abundantly promising material (a rampaging invisible man) seemed to confirm that his ongoing battle with the Hollywood system had rendered the talented provocateur a crass hack.
Fortunately, a return to his homeland also marks a return to form for Verhoeven. His new World War II thriller 'Black Book,' a throwback to his 1977 breakthrough 'Soldier of Orange,' is his best movie since 'RoboCop.'
The irony is that, unhindered by timid studios and an oppressive ratings board, the director has created what is essentially a good old-fashioned Hollywood melodrama.
The only difference is the violence, nudity, sex and (on one memorable occasion) excrement that totally recalls Verhoeven at his most gleefully unleashed.
Oh, and there's another crucial difference - the heroic lead role is female. Rachel Stein (the vibrant Carice van Houten) is a Jewish cabaret singer hiding out on a Dutch farm after losing her family in a failed attempt to escape Holland.
She winds up with a group of resistance fighters who send her to work - with a new name and a blond dye job (another primo Verhoeven bit) - in the office and then the bed of the local Gestapo chief.
The fact that her Nazi lover (played by Sebastian Koch, from 'The Lives of Others') is a decent sort, while some of her resistance comrades are traitorous scum, also is typical of Verhoeven, who's never been one for moral absolutes.
Much of the outrageous charm of Verhoeven at his best is the zest with which he treats humanity at its worst. Contradiction is part of the messiness in which he revels.
Van Houten is plucky company through it all, like a younger, less arch Sharon Stone, or maybe a Cameron Diaz with something to sell besides a grin and some jiggle.
She puts a fresh face on the invigorated Verhoeven's slam-bang antics. The director was a kid during the war, and 'Black Book' is a personal and commercial entertainment that propels adult action with a boy's outsize sense of adventure. Though mostly a down-and-dirty romp, it's also thoughtful, in Verhoeven's typically chaotic way.
- Pat Holmes