The sublime motorcycle teen movie by Paul Verhoeven.
“In war, in love and filmmaking, everything is permitted” – Paul Verhoeven.
For making the film he had in mind – a watered down version of the script had originally received a grant – Paul Verhoeven is forced into exile. His previous successes, including Turkish Delight and Soldier of Orange, are not enough for the powerful Dutch Film Fund to forgive the insolence of its former prodigy.
Upon his release, Spetters is described by the press as “fascist entertainment“. Nasa-80, an anti-Spetters collective, is formed in an attempt to ban the film from theatres. At the time, Dutch cinema is vastly subsidized and Verhoeven cannot make films in Holland anymore. He lands in Los Angeles and directs Robocop, Total Recall, Basic Instinct, Starship Troopers, and the unloved Showgirls. Films that have in common the same blend of depth and irreverence, the magic ingredient that transforms Verhoeven’s projects into blockbusters.
In 1980, Spetters already reflects the perspicacity of his creator and his taste for insubordination. Inspired by a series of articles about the violent behaviour of gay gangs in Rotterdam, this harsh biker teen movie shakes up the clichés of the genre, attacks religion and addresses sexuality bluntly. Spetters, which means both “splashes” and “hot guys / girls“, also shows Holland in a very different light than the model of tolerance it would like to stand for internationally.
Rien, Eef and Hans, three friends and motocross fans, are enjoying their youth in the small town of Maassluis, a suburb of Rotterdam. They despise the rules and the piety of their parents’ austere middle class. They’re chasing their modest, yet universal, dreams: get the beautiful girl, become rich, and if possible, famous too.
Eef the mechanic (Toon Agterberg) can assemble a motor blindfolded, Rien (Hans van Tongeren) is the local rising star of motocross, Hans (Maarten Spanjer) wishes he had Eef’s confidence and Rien’s talent. Motorcycles give the three young men a way to escape the mundane and its conventions. They idolize Gerrit Witkamp (Rutger Hauer, doubled by Gerrit Wolsink a star of Dutch motocross) a professional pilot, who embodies everything they dream of.
As in most motorcyclists tales, the bike is a dual instrument of freedom and death. It will logically collect its pound of flesh before the end of the film.
The beautiful Fientje (Renee Soutendijk) arrives in town in her roach coach. Her presence reveals the fate of the three boys. Gerard Soeteman, screenwriter: “If you look close enough, you may see ‘Spetters’ as a modern fairy tale, in which three knights compete for a damsel and where horses are replaced by motorcycles”. The comparison with a fairy tale is short-lived: the princess does not dream of love, but of money. She seduces the three friends in order to find the most profitable match. She gives away her body and her sex with one thing in mind: have a better life.
Some Dutch feminists were infuriated by this pragmatic temptress. As if women in films could only incarnate romantic ideals, as if intelligence could only serve noble intentions. With characters such as Nomi Malone (Elizabeth Berkley) in Showgirls, or Catherine Tramell (Sharon Stone) in Basic Instinct, Verhoeven will continue to portray complex women, miles away from mainstream cinema heroines.
Homosexuality is another controversial subject of the film. Eef (Toon Agterberg) – who until then ransomed and assaulted male prostitutes – finds the courage to come out as gay after being gang raped. Verhoeven, true to its corrosive style, uses physical violence to denounce psychological violence: one of a repressed society, plagued by homophobia.
The final blow to conservatism comes from scenes featuring a Christian revival group, attended by Maya (Marianne Boyer), Rien’s girlfriend. The charge is not innocent: Verhoeven himself went through a mystical crisis in the 60’s, as a result of personal problems. He briefly attended a Pentecostal church, which thinking he describes as “sectarian and dangerous“. His response to religious zeal is realism, the demonstration of the impotence of God to help men. So when Rien becomes paralysed after an absurd motorcycle accident – a woman throws orange peels out the window of her car, Rien loses the control of his machine – he is not saved by the community’s prayers, or even the faith of the woman who loves him.
At the dawn of the 80’s, role models have changed. The many references to John Travolta peppered throughout the film – Grease and Saturday Night Fever are contemporary – seem to evoke a way of life and values that can merely survive as posters on a wall. On the dance floor, the Spetters youth lets loose on Iggy Pop (Lust for Life) and Blondie (Heart of Glass).
Having the courage to feature somewhat unsympathetic characters, more often than not victims of their contradictions and weaknesses, Verhoeven delivers an angry film, in which dreams do not survive the contact with reality, but where sometimes, the simple joy of movement and the beauty of the road illuminate for an instant the dark side of the human heart.