Turkish Delight

The film that made Paul Verhoeven's name in his native Holland is a putrid affair – full of garbage, vomit, blood and spunk. The preternaturally handsome Rutger Hauer is our protagonist, an artist who cannot sit down at a restaurant without fomenting a riot. He is completely uninhibited, but also vain, vindictive, and more than a little violent. The film begins with the suggestion that he may be a murderer. After the love of his tiny life leaves him, he dreams up disturbing revenge fantasies, wakes up in his hovel of a studio, masturbates, and goes on to sleep with as many women as would have him (inexplicably, it's a lot).

Verhoeven shoots his main man in an improvised, twitchy way, apparently inspired by the French New Wave. He encourages his cast to ham it up, and on occasion it almost looks like you're watching a silent comedy – grotesque faces, clownish gestures, visual gags. Much of this is in the service of satirising the curtain-twitching, hypocritical society of small minded housewives, ignorant peasants and obsequious royalists that Hauer bulldozes through.

But for most of the film, Hauer's liberality is much more grating. He is obscenely self-involved, unrepentantly selfish. This is nowhere clearer than in his lovemaking, which is not reciprocal, and treats women as passive objects that are maneuvered to gratify the male gaze, and the camera. Verhoeven is never just a pornographer – Turkish Delight is more that just slobbering over sexually available girls. But for parts of this film he is entirely too close to Hauer's own pornographic view of Monique van de Ven, and of his freewheeling, responsibility-free attitude more broadly.

Thankfully, the film turns out to be about growing up. Hauer is the noble savage, playing in his own shit and humping anything that moves. He is an innocent, and if anything the film is a pointed lesson in how dangerous (and deranged) such people are. His fierce, clumsy, possessive love for Monique van de Ven brings out the worst in him. And when she's had enough, he dreams of murder and attempts to rape her. But she escapes, and in the intervening period before he encounters her again, Hauer matures, and ends up caring for her when she falls ill.

Even when dying, Monique van de Ven is as impulsive and insatiable as ever. In the one nod to the title, she stuffs her mouth with turkish delight until its fit to burst, even though she fears her teeth might fall out because of the radiotherapy. The film makes the suggestion that living this fast burns you right out. Drinking too deep from the cup of life will poison you. The film ends with the image of a statue made by Hauer of van de Ven holding a baby aloft, evoking the family that the couple were never able to have. For all of his provocative liberalism, Verhoeven ends up suggesting that some aspects of traditional society may be worth preserving after all. He's more conservative than he seems.

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