Arts & Entertainment
3 min

Celebrating weakness

TIFF celebrates Paul Verhoeven and two of his worst-received (but much-loved) films

Elizabeth Berkley gives a good pole lickin’ in Showgirls. Credit: Paul Verhoeven

Paul Verhoeven may have the most oddly inconsistent catalogue of any filmmaker in the last three decades. Though he’s the eye behind celebrated films like Total Recall and The Fourth Man, it’s perhaps his worst-received works, Basic Instinct and Showgirls, that went on to be his best known. 

The twin tales of a bisexual, possibly murderous writer and an ambitious, possibly bisexual stripper form an odd mirror in the effect they had on their female leads. The former saw unknown actress Sharon Stone briefly flash her pubes, igniting an ultimately Oscar-winning career. The latter saw Saved by the Bell star Elizabeth Berkley completely naked most of the picture, tanking her attempt at career relaunch. She ultimately became an advice guru for teenaged girls.

But recently, critics are giving these films a second look.  

“Both have a deep relationship with cinema history,” says Jesse Wente, head of film programs at the TIFF Bell Lightbox and curator of the current Verhoeven retrospective. “Basic Instinct is a film noir, complete with the femme fatale, and Showgirls most obviously recalls All About Eve, which lends itself to critical rethinking. Showgirls is also unique, in that it’s become celebrated for its inherent weaknesses and it’s had a critical rebirth as a result of those weaknesses.”

TIFF is a venue known for showcasing the world’s top cinema, so doing a series on Verhoeven could seem an odd decision. But Wente doesn’t see it that way.

“It wasn’t a hard choice,” he says. “We’ve been asked to do Verhoeven by our audience on a number of occasions. With the new critical thinking happening around his cinema, it seemed the ideal time to revisit his diverse and remarkable career. There’s still much that could be debated about his movies, but I don’t think there’s any questioning that, seen as a whole, Verhoeven’s work is fascinating and extremely rich.”