on 19 March 2008
Paul Verhoeven's much-underrated film Spetters tells the typically brash and uncompromising story of three young men growing up in a sleepy village just outside of Rotterdam, consumed by small-town ennui, and desperate for a life more glamorous and exciting than their own loafing existence of discothèques, motor-cross and general everyday tedium. It has a lot in common with certain American teen-melodramas of the late 70's and early 80's (films like Foxes, Rumble Fish, The Outsiders, River's Edge, etc), though is shot through with that liberated European sensibility that probably has more in common with Fassbinder, in terms of gritty stylisation. The story doesn't really advance on the initial set up, with this being more of a character based film in the minor-key (at odds with some of Verhoeven's better known films, like Robocop, Basic Instinct and The Fourth Man), with the director drawing on the relationships between the lead characters and their various situations, in order to elicit a greater sense of drama. The characters are all believable and likeable to an extent - despite the opening scenes establishing them as a bunch of arrogant, feckless (possibly homophobic?) punks only out for themselves - however, as the film progresses, Verhoeven and his scriptwriter Gerard Soeteman (who collaborated with the director on all of his pre-Hollywood films) begin playing with notions of irony, to strip away all the remnants of their confidence and self-assurance in a number of melodramatic tragedies.
The film has a great style and feel to it, with Verhoeven capturing the real feel of early-80's Holland (or so I'd imagine) whilst also establishing a mood of endless possibilities for these three main characters. The early scenes of the film are quite bawdy and have a rather light-hearted and comedic tone to them, which is important, as it brings us into the world of the characters and allows us to become familiar with them before Verhoeven hits us with the hard stuff. When the film reaches the halfway mark, Verhoeven and Soeteman introduce the character of Fientje, a seductive hotdog vender who rolls into town with her bodybuilding brother on the day of the big motor-cross championship, only to immediately cross-paths with the three young bikers and the various other supporting players who will become more important towards the end of the film (...the dirt bike champion, the TV reporter, the hell's angels, etc). Her presence in town is treated with hostility by many of the characters, though ultimately, she proves to be an important catalyst for many of the major events in the film, enticing the three young men and seemingly persuading them that that can do "anything". The film then takes it's Fassbinder aspirations to the next level, with each scene escalating to a frenzied sense of melodrama and tragedy, as Verhoeven introduces such themes as disability, religious fanaticism, homosexuality and suicide. Like all of the director's work (not just his early Dutch films), Spetters is both provocative and confrontational, with Verhoeven always trying to get some kind of response out of the viewer. However, whereas his early films, like Business is Business and Turkish Delight seemed like they were flaunting their liberated sexuality as something of a badge of honour (...whilst his U.S. work is largely out to push buttons), this film seems much more natural.
The problems the three young men encounter in this film (including parental abuse, disability, rape and ridicule) are everyday occurrences... true, they're exaggerated here, so as Verhoeven can achieve a greater sense of resonance and drama, but the whole thing seems all the more engaging and, to some extent, touching, especially compared to the bloated melodrama of his later film, Showgirls. It should be noted that Spetters, although one of the best films of the 1980's (in my opinion), certainly isn't for everyone. It's probably the furthest Verhoeven has ever gone in terms of the on screen depiction of sexuality, more so than The Fourth Man. Here, for the first time in its full-uncut version (though it has been shown uncut in the past on channels like Bravo and Film Four), we see the director in his element, mixing humour with drama, action with tragedy, and character with controversy. The oft-discussed rape scene that happens half-way through the film is a real test for the audience, not simply for what is depicted within the scene (male gang rape replete with a brief erection) but also within the overall context (the protagonist eventually realises, through the rape, that he is indeed gay!). As well as this, there's also a two second shot of actually falatio, three erections (as the boys make a wager as to who has the biggest!!) and a moment between one of the boys, Rien, and the promiscuous Fientje, in which she strokes his penis in close-up. There's also a scene in which one of the hell's angels gets hot fat poured over him, some rather brutal scenes of domestic abuse and a violent suicide towards the end.
Ultimately, the film ends with a glimmer of hope, building on top of the excellent style, script and moments of drama that have been peppered throughout this great, two-hour film. The direction from Verhoeven here is exceptional, whilst the performances, in particularly those from Renée Soutendijk, Maarten Spanjer and the tragic Hans van Tongeren, whose death sadly mirrored that of his character here, are all excellent and completely believable (whilst there's some fine cameo support offered from Verhoeven regulars, Jeroen Krabbé and Rutger Hauer).Spetters, for me, is an extreme film and something of a minor-masterpiece... it is also highly rewarding and engaging and ultimately, is evidence enough that Verhoeven, when taken away from films like Showgirls and Hollow Man, is a great filmmaker.