Thursday, 2 February 2012

Turkish Delight

Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven’s Turkish Delight is one of those films that really challenges your ingrained assumptions about socialized behaviour. We hear all about “40 being the new 20” nowadays, and parents being more like friends or older siblings to their kids. Modern consumer capitalism is such an essentially hedonistic and selfish creed that one can grow up in it indefinitely postponing any real adulthood. Old-school bourgeois notions of “propriety,” “deportment,” “comportment” etc. have either been devalued or abandoned completely, as adults wish more and more to still seem cool and with it. And with Turkish Delight, Verhoeven has grasped the ultimate tragedy of this passing. There was so much energetic fun to be had from shocking and offending bourgeois sensibilities that without them, art is going to be a lot more lifeless. Grasping, in 1973, that Holland’s pre-war bourgeois standards of conduct had not long left to live, Verhoeven seems to have set about making a film that would stand as a final affront to them before they were gone.

Turkish Delight is a film wholly given over to the human body at its most frankly biological, and the human mentality at its most unapologetically lustful and self-interested. The film is basically about a bohemian, wild-living artist named Rolf who finds a kindred spirit in an acting-out middle-class girl named Olga. They both have voracious sex drives, and seemingly no inhibitions about the rest of life either. They marry, but soon real life begins to deflate things, as Rolf’s extreme personality brings him into open warfare with Olga’s venally horrible bourgeois family. Sick of being caught in the middle, Olga seemingly dumps him for a more “normal” guy.

Thus far, the story may sound predictable enough. The idiom in which it’s told, however, is utterly mind-expanding. Turkish Delight is totally fluent in how it manages to relate almost every plot development to the excretions of the human body. We are first introduced to Rolf some months after Olga’s split, as he juicily licks the back of a photo of her, stamps it to the wall with his saliva, then masturbates to it, grunting about “licking the shit from her ass.” After this, the backstory is established in flashbacks. When he first meets Olga he mounts her with barely a by-your-leave, only to get his cock manglingly caught in his zipper. In their first time in a proper bed, he goes down on her, says that she tastes like oysters, and invites her to piss in his mouth. Their wedding is interrupted when one of the many pregnant brides goes into labour and wets herself – a dog swiftly moving in to lap it up. Their first time as man and wife is punctuated by a close-up of Olga slurping champagne out of his belly-button. It’s during a moment of domestic bliss that Rolf first offers to lick the shit from her ass, but the playful mood is broken when Olga goes into hysterics at seeing blood in her stool, signalling the ominous third act to come (in the event, though, it was only beet juice, as Rolf discovers by minutely examining her turds). His feud with Olga’s family moves into endgame when her father dies – in a sufficiently incontinent fashion that family members have to breath into perfumed handkerchiefs to pay their parting regards. Upon humiliatingly discovering Olga’s new lover at a raucously drunken family gathering, Rolf reacts by vomiting on everyone in range.

The above litany is not close to exhaustive – there’s much more business about maggots, horse’s eyeballs, thumb-sucking, doggie doo, junkyards, etc. – but you no doubt get the point. Anyone who possesses a fully-formed bourgeois moralizing side will either write off the film as “filthy,” “horrible,” “depraved,” etc., and think no further about it. Other, slightly more “liberated” or “free-thinking” types might go with the film to a certain extent, before a saturation point is reached and they cry “no more!” And some aficionados of gross-out humour might embrace the film because and only because of its parade of outrageous behaviour, and look no deeper at the film’s meaning.

For meaning there is. The intriguing thing is that, in spite of everything, Verhoeven is not just producing his answer to Pink Flamingos. The film is not anti-everything or nihilistic, but rather still has a cunning agenda of sorts. First off, it is almost strangely patriotic in the number of gorgeous shots of Amsterdam’s canals, landscapes, and historic architecture that it contains – the kind that could have come from some sentimental “national heritage” TV spot. Moreover, the final resolution to the plot is likewise a lot more romantic and sentimental than we’d expect. As it turns out, Olga was suffering an incipient brain tumour, which kills her at the end. She may, it’s implied, not have been in her right mind leaving Rolf, or if she was then she simply wanted to spare him the horrors to come. From this angle it almost seems like an earthier version of Love Story three years before.

The final spirit in which to approach the film, however, is to remind oneself that bourgeois society has always been canny enough to fence off a certain reserved domain for the romantic-rebel-artist type, and as long as he stays within that perimeter, he can in fact be feted and adulated by the very society he seeks to scorn and repudiate. With Rolf’s character in Turkish Delight, however, Verhoeven seems really determined to test the absolute limits of this idea while any vestiges of such “bourgeois society” still remain. Nowadays, when we seem positively to expect outrageous behaviour from any kind of public figure, and your average Hollywood comedy is almost as biological as Turkish Delight, the film seems much less transgressive and a lot more prescient.