Wednesday 18 August 2021

Benedetta (Paul Verhoeven, 2021)

Believe it or not, half a century has now passed since the release of Dutch director Paul Verhoeven's first feature film, Wat zien ik!? (aka Business is Business).  In the years since, Verhoeven has shocked audiences both in Europe (Spetters, De vierde man) and across the pond (Robocop, Basic Instinct), all the while cementing a formidable reputation as an enfant terrible with major box-office clout.  As time has gone on, Verhoeven has slowed down—perhaps understandably, given that he's now 83 years old—and significant gaps have appeared between his projects; the Dutch-language Zwartboek was his first film in six years, and a full decade would pass between its 2006 release and his return to cinemas with Elle.  While his new film, Benedetta, has appeared a mere five years on from Elle, you do wonder when Verhoeven might decide to call it a day.  It will be a pity when he does as, ever since the mid-1980s, the release of a new Paul Verhoeven film has always been something of an event, and neither his reduced output nor his return to Europe from Hollywood—it is now over 20 years since his last English-language effort, Hollow Man—has impacted on the anticipation that precedes a new Verhoeven movie.

Benedetta premiered in competition for the Palme d'Or at this year's Cannes Film Festival, and while it didn't win—Titane, which will be reviewed here shortly, scooped the main prize—the film nonetheless enjoyed a high-profile outing at the first post-COVID edition of the festival.  As is almost always the case with Verhoeven's films, Benedetta is a work that sets out to ruffle more than a few feathers, yet it falls some way short of the transgressiveness of many of the director's prior films, including its immediate predecessor, the enjoyably trashy Elle.  The success of the controversial, highly successful Elle owed much to the committed performance of Isabelle Huppert, who received an Oscar nomination for her electrifying turn; I fully expected Huppert to turn up in Benedetta, and I can only speculate that the role filled by the excellent Charlotte Rampling was originally penned with Huppert in mind.  Given that Huppert played a similar part in Guillaume Nicloux's 2013 adaptation of Diderot's The Nun, perhaps it wouldn't have been the best idea for her to be cast here, if indeed she was offered the role; plus, it's always good to see Rampling at work.

Benedetta is adapted from Judith Brown's book Immodest Acts, and the title character is played one of Isabelle Huppert's Elle co-stars: the terrific Belgian actress Virginie Efira, who can consider herself very unlucky not to have been among the winners when Albert Dupontel's superb Bye Bye Morons netted a glut of César awards earlier this year.  In Benedetta, Efira's nun has been in a convent since the age of eight, and during her time there she's claimed to have been on the business end of several miraculous happenings—such as visions of Jesus and the acquisition of stigmata.  All of this is viewed with some scepticism by Rampling's stern abbess, whose demeanour grows yet more severe upon the arrival of a new charge in the form of Bartolomea (Efira's fellow Belgian Daphné Patakia), a rebellious type who wastes little time in entering into a romantic relationship with Benedetta.  On Bartolomea's frantic introduction—she's trying to escape her abusive family—the abbess points out that the convent isn't a charity, and asks the desperate girl if she has money; this frank discussion brilliantly illustrates how quick God's earthly ambassadors can be to move the goalposts when the time comes to help those in need.  1-0 to Verhoeven.

With Benedetta, Paul Verhoeven has set out his stall somewhere between Jacques Rivette's stately La Religieuse and Ken Russell's scabrous The Devils, yet the end product serves up neither the emotional point of the former nor the biting critique of the latter; furthermore, Verhoeven's film doesn't give the viewer much of an opportunity to invest in its characters, despite the sterling efforts of both Efira and Rampling.  And in spite of its best efforts to offend, Benedetta feels an oddly tame, muted affair—compared to 30 years ago, the bar has been raised considerably vis-à-vis what is considered to be outré, and Verhoeven is doing little more than treading water here as he rifles through the index cards of his past successes; in all honesty, it's quite disappointing to discover that this director's attempt at nunsploitation has resulted in one of the subgenre's milder entries.  It all feels a bit reheated, and the casting of Lambert Wilson and Olivier Rabourdin only serves to recall their work in Of Gods and Men—a much more affecting tale of monastic life.  Still, for all that, Benedetta generally works as lurid, pulpy fun, which is pretty much what we all want and expect from a Paul Verhoeven film.  You won't change him now.

Darren Arnold

Images: MatejFilmu [CC BY-SA 4.0]