‘Benedetta’ Director Paul Verhoeven on Sex, His Jesus Fascination and Hollywood Puritanism

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Paul Verhoeven has made a career out of pushing cinematic boundaries, particularly when it comes to depicting sex or violence on screen.

In films like “Basic Instinct” and “Showgirls,” he battled the ratings boards, while blockbusters like “Total Recall” and “Robocop” popularized R-rated action. All that changed in the aughts, as Hollywood abandoned those projects, sanded down the edges of commercial movies, and replaced ice-pick wielding serial killers with caped superheroes that appeal to a-all-four quadrants. But Verhoeven endured, turning his attention to European films such as “The Black Book” and “Elle” and earning the critical respect that often evaded him in the 1990s. He’s back in Cannes this year with “Benedetta,” the story of a lesbian affair between nuns in 17th century Italy. The film will be released in the U.S. by IFC Films.

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Why did you want to make “Benedetta”?

You don’t know why you are attracted to things or what in your brain makes you want to do a certain project. My friend and co-writer David Birke gave me a book by Judith C. Brown called “Immodest Acts.” It was about something really weird and unique and it was based on these notes that a scribe took at the time that are so precise about what exactly, sexually these two nuns did. The people in charge back then were all men and there was a lot of doubt that sexual relationships between women even existed. And then the nun was having visions with Jesus in them. It was a story that had to be told.

You wrote a book, “Jesus of Nazareth” and you were a member of the Jesus Seminar, a group of scholars who look at the history surrounding Jesus. Are you religious?

No. I didn’t write my book as a believer. I’m highly interested in Jesus, who was extremely important for our culture and the development of humanism. I studied him and read an enormous amount of books about him.

Do you think Jesus existed?

Of course, Jesus lived. There is so much evidence of it that denying that he ever lived is ridiculous.

From “Basic Instinct” to “Flesh and Blood” to now “Benedetta,” your films have often had gay or bisexual characters or scenes of gay sex. Have you made it a point to show those kinds of relationships on screen?

I haven’t made it a point. It’s a big percent of the population. Homosexuality is part of life, so it should be a part of our dramas. Why should I ignore that? It’s there. A certain part of the population is bisexual or homosexual or transgender, that’s the reality. I come back to it because it’s a normal part of life.

Studios don’t make erotic dramas like “Basic Instinct” anymore. Why not?

There’s been a general shift towards Puritanism. I think there’s a misunderstanding about sexuality in the United States. Sexuality is the most essential element of nature. I’m always amazed people are shocked by sex in movies.

Do you think those movies ceased to be popular after the 1990s because pornography became ubiquitous online?

There was pornography all over the place when I was young if you wanted it. I believe that we are going through a period of more Puritan thinking. If there is a change in how we view sexuality in films, I don’t think it has to do with porn on the internet. Here in Holland, about 20 years ago when you went to the beach, three quarters of the women were without a top. That was the norm at the time. If you go now, every woman is covered again.

In her recent autobiography, Sharon Stone says that you tricked her into filming the leg crossing scene without underwear. She claims you said her underwear was reflecting the light poorly and you asked her to remove them, but no frontal nudity was supposed to appear in the final film. What’s your response?

My memory is radically different from Sharon’s memory. That does not stand in the way and has nothing to do with the wonderful way that she portrayed Catherine Tramell. She is absolutely phenomenal. We still have a pleasant relationship and exchange text messages. But her version is impossible. She knew exactly what we were doing. I told her it was based on a story of a woman that I knew when I was a student who did the crossing of her legs without panties regularly at parties. When my friend told her we could see her vagina, she said, “Of course, that’s why I do it.” Then Sharon and I decided to do a similar sequence.

After “Basic Instinct” was a hit, you were supposed to make “Crusade,” a big-budget epic with Arnold Schwarzenegger. What happened to that film?

It was a financial situation. We wanted to make it during the last days of [Hollywood studio] Carolco. They were working on two movies at the same time. One was “Crusade” and the other was “Cutthroat Island,” and then they found out that they only $100 million or something like that and both movies cost that much. So they chose the pirate movie, which was in retrospect a terrible choice because “Cutthroat Island” tanked completely and led to the bankruptcy of Carolco. At one point they even asked me if I was interested in “Cutthroat Island,” but I really wanted to work with Arnold again after “Total Recall.” Our idea was to make this movie where Arnold becomes the king of Jerusalem. At the end he abandons all of that to live with his girlfriend and settles in a little farm. It’s basically the end from Voltaire’s “Candide,” when the main character is asked what he’s going to do now and he says he’s going to cultivate his own garden.

Do you have other films in the works?

I’m developing a couple of projects. One is an American movie — a spy thriller that’s going to be set in Washington. I’m also going to make a movie based on my book about Jesus.

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