What an extraordinary career Paul Verhoeven had! Born in a country devoid of a great film culture, the director managed in a few years to embody Dutch cinema on his own, before migrating to Hollywood and experiencing huge popular success there in productions a thousand leagues from his beginnings, but which retains that taste for provocation , which makes Verhoeven’s “paw”. At 82, the man is now embarking on a third part of his career as improbable as the second, this time in France, and he still doesn’t deny anything about his personality or his favorite themes. This formidable adventure began in 1971 with a modest feature film titled What am I seeing!? (Business is business), a story about two low-class prostitutes who fulfill their clients’ strange fantasies. There is no doubt that we are indeed dealing with a film by Paul Verhoeven.
If the American period of Paul Verhoeven (1987 to 2000) is the best known to the general public, with of course the classics of science fiction RoboCop (1987) and Total recall (1990), as well as the cult erotic thriller Primal instinct (1992), or even the famous failure, today partially rehabilitated, it was the lawyer Showgirls (1995), it would be unfair not to pay attention to the early part of the Dutch filmmaker’s career. Because it is no coincidence that the six films shot in his homeland opened the doors of Hollywood for him. If some of them aren’t easy to get your hands on*, all are really worth a detour, especially the classic Turkish fruits (Turkish Delight/1973), the biggest success for Dutch film to date, and The fourth man (The fourth man/1983), his last work shot in the Netherlands before a very successful return more than twenty years later with Black book (Black book/2006). In this fictional anthology with very varied, but from an artistic point of view remarkably coherent subjects, the first occupies a special place. Yes, where some of Verhoeven’s Dutch films are very harsh and take on a dark tone, Business is business is his only performance that can truly be described as comedy. Humor is also one of the trademarks that here betrays a style whose contours are not yet fully defined. If humor has always been very present in the filmmaker’s works, including (especially!) in contexts that are obviously not suitable for it (cruelty, excesses, degradation), as perfectly illustrated by RoboCop, Starship Troopers (1997) or She (2016), there is in this first essay a lightness, a good-natured spirit—despite the subject matter—that will last. The film was one of the biggest Dutch box office successes of 1971 with almost 2.5 million admissions.
The scenario of Business is business is signed Gerard Soeteman, with whom Verhoeven had already collaborated on the TV series Florisin 1969 (in which another faithful of the filmmaker, the actor Rutger Hauer plays), and who will write all his Dutch films – with the exception of the very special project Steak game (tricked/2012). It was also on this initial feature that Verhoeven collaborated for the first time with producer Rob Houwer, who at the time had a solid reputation in Germany, working notably with Volker Schlöndorff, and who would produce all of his subsequent opuses except Splatters.
Business is business is based on the novel of the same name written by actor, dancer and novelist Albert Mol, one of the first Dutch comedians to come out as gay. The author also makes a cameo in the film. The narrative line in this one is flimsy to say the least. The heroines are called Greet and Nel, two prostitute friends from Amsterdam, unrefined and who don’t sell dreams. The first is a hoarse matron with a strong character, the second her blonde boyfriend who is a bit corny. Not surprisingly, both vaguely dream of a different destiny. If for a moment Greet seems to have a chance to improve her situation by falling in love with a good guy whose marriage has failed and who seems to value her beyond her role as a female object, it is in in the end by chance that Nel is to marry a simpleton in Eindhoven who does not know that she has the oldest profession in the world. The story, quite loosely, is packed with many comical scenes where we see the two women realize, with a lot of investment and creativity, the most crazy or disturbed fantasies of their clients. In this way, Greet and Nel are transformed into terrifying characters, school sweethearts, chickens, corpses, mistresses of the house who cross cleanliness or even surgeons, in wild little sketches.
To be plain, what a horror!
In this comedy of manners, still devoid of the unhealthy atmosphere and shock scenes that he will quickly develop thereafter, Paul Verhoeven adopts a good-natured and uninhibited tone that makes it a very funny film. The first sequence sets the tone: a damned needy customer is nabbed shamelessly by the gogo-smelling Greet, charging him for the tiniest piece of clothing that she takes off … before the unfortunate man enjoys the excitement, before he has done either it is. The prostitute literally gives him the bill! In the same sequence, the unfortunate client says that he did not have the opportunity to have sexual relations in Africa, from which he returns, because the only woman he liked there was a nun. How can you not smile when you think about it this year, 50 years (!) later What am I seeing!?Verhoeven will release Benedetta, the story of a nun who obviously doesn’t have the same moral barriers. The circle is complete!
We already find in this work a certain number of elements specific to the Verhoeven/Soeteman style, especially the omnipresence of sex (for a first film, the nude scenes are very numerous!) and fringe, depraved and sometimes downright disgusting characters. Anyway, Business is business does not yield to any wretchedness, on the contrary he assumes the vulgarity of his subject and his protagonists in a kind of modern dim-witted spirit. Decency is a notion that seems foreign to Verhoeven. An inclination that will push him to flirt with the boundaries of good taste throughout his career., including when it turns in the US, which is unusual enough to be emphasized. In his first opus, the Dutch director removes all the dirty sides of the environment and the characters he films to make it a light and joyfully lecherous comedy. The whole spirit of the Soeteman/Verhoeven duo is summed up in Greet’s annoyance when a man calls her ordinary. The characters created by the two men are always colorful, marginal and very distinct. Whether they are cowardly, ridiculous, obsessed, immoral, sadistic or abominable, all of these are always better than being ordinary.
Rude and degenerate males
Paul Verhoeven very often (especially in his Dutch period) depicted fiercely free female characters with unrestrained sexuality. Her universe is populated by arrogant villains, a prototype from which women are no exception, and yet they often evoke more sympathy or understanding than their male counterparts – up to the murderous castrating and libidinous Catherine Tramell (Sharon Stone) in Primal instinctor the rape victim Michèle Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert), who catches her executioner at her own game, in She. In Verhoeven, women refuse to suffer their fate, no matter how cruel and unjust it may be, no matter what the cost. This is what elevates them just above the mush of humanity that the filmmaker films with assumed glee.
All this is already inside Business is business, a film that hardly spares men. The two prostitutes may sell their bodies every night, but their male clientele lose their dignity. Far from home, behind the curtains of brothels, men can give free rein to their regressive and shameful impulses, with those who will never betray their secrets. The male characters are either goofy (Bob, Nel’s future husband) or pathetic (Sjaak, the violent pimp who can’t stand Nel’s escape). Even those who play the great lords cannot hide their mediocrity for long. Such is the case with Piet, the client with whom Greet falls in love. Beneath her tough exterior, the latter dreams that he is asking her to marry him. However, she will realize when he takes her to a classical concert that she does not belong to the same world as Piet, who the same evening informs her that his wife is pregnant, ending this adventure that was doomed in the blink of an eye .
Paul Verhoeven, this cantor of provocation, then proves, at the age of barely 33, what a great director he already is through a very successful bittersweet conclusion. Long after putting away her illusions, Greet runs into Piet, who has become a father, and his wife in a shop. When she sees the life she would have liked to have with him, she hides her bitterness behind bravado (“A baby wouldn’t have been for me”) and humor (she asks him to name her child Greet if it’s a girl). The failure of her life is reflected in the success of her friend Nel, who is getting married and is now expecting a child. After initially giving in to frustration, Greet regains her solidarity and generosity: by simply nodding her head, she is the one who encourages Nel to say “yes” at the altar. Before they returned to offer fleeting pleasure to these men who without it would lead a very sad life.
* A Paul Verhoeven box set of five Dutch films was released in 2004 by Metropolitan Video. Curiously, the only feature film that is missing Splatters (1980), which was however re-released separately in 2019 in a beautifully restored (and uncensored) version.
Synopsis : Greet and Nel are two prostitutes who work in Amsterdam and live together. While they dream of another life, they bow daily to the sometimes strange demands of their customers…
Business is Business: Fact sheet
Original title: Wat zien ik!?
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Script: Gerard Soeteman
Actors: Ronny Bierman (Blonde Greet), Sylvia de Leur (Nel Mulder), Piet Römer (Piet), Jules Hamel (Sjaak), Bernhard Droog (Bob de Vries)
Photo: Jan de Bont
Editing: Jan Bosdriesz
Music: Jack Trombey
Producer: Rob Houwer
Duration: 90 min.
Release date: July 12, 1973
Netherlands – 1971