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Reviews » Theatrical Reviews » Black Book
Black Book
Sony Pictures // R // April 4, 2007
Review by Jamie S. Rich | posted April 4, 2007 | E-mail the Author
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Oh, Paul Verhoeven, you've finally done it.

I've been waiting for you to show your hand for a while now. You've been crapping out one stinkfest after another and somehow convincing people you were some kind of camp genius. I've never bought it myself. I always thought you just made bad films and were getting incredibly lucky. While I could see where the defenders of Starship Troopers were coming from, I don't think that movie is any more sophisticated than the propaganda it's allegedly parroting. And Showgirls? I like lowbrow entertainment as much as the next guy, but when your forehead smacks against the floor, it's time to stop.

For your new movie, Black Book, you went and got all serious on us. It's the story of a Jewish girl, Rachel Stein (Carice Van Houten), who changes her name to Ellis and joins the Dutch resistance after she loses her family in a botched attempt to flee Holland. A clever maneuver to elude SS officers during a smuggling operation puts her in close with Muntz (Sebastian Koch), the head of the local branch of the Gestapo. Seeing an opportunity, and despite her smuggling partner (Thom Hoffman) being smitten with her himself, Ellis is sent into Nazi headquarter to become Muntz's mistress. Several double-crosses and near misses follow on the way to Armistice Day. We know Ellis will survive, as the film actually begins a decade after peace is declared and then makes its way back, so it's a question of how close a call it will be.

Paul, I know Black Book will likely be heralded as some kind of return to your European roots. You began your career over there, and this movie is primarily in Dutch, so it might remind some of Soldier of Orange and your other pre-Hollywood efforts. In all honesty, I actually enjoyed quite a bit of Black Book. I'm down with the way you've styled the film like an old-fashioned war epic. The iron-jawed resistance fighters pull daring raids on the evil occupiers, fighting the good fight and going down hard to the sound of machine guns and gorgeous orchestral swells. I'm sure it grated a little when Jean-Pierre Melville's film about the French freedom fighters, Army of Shadows, got re-released last year. It's a better movie, and it doesn't help that it's still fresh in my mind. Even so, you do some good stuff here. The art direction is gorgeous, and your lead actress is excellent. It must have taken a will as strong as her character's to weather all the humiliation you have in store for her.

The problem is, Paul, you have no self-control, and self-control is essential to this kind of homage. Look at Steven Soderbergh's The Good German. I'm sure it also irked you that his WWII movie beat you the multiplex, particularly as I think you had some similar things in mind. You both wanted to be Michael Curtiz, but unfortunately for you, Soderbergh's riff on Curtiz makes you look like Ed Wood. While he got close to touching the hem of Bogart's trenchcoat in his tribute to Casablanca, it makes your film come off more like Barb Wire. The Good German takes the classic Hollywood style and sticks with it, shining a light on the facade and showing us the darkness the lies underneath. His war isn't pretty, and he weaves that into the fabric of his narrative. You, on the other hand, seem to be playing it straight, holding your breath as long as you can until the urge overtakes you and you can't resist getting a girl naked or showing someone's head go boom. If you can't make up your mind if you want to be Michael Curtiz or David Cronenberg, then go ahead and be both, but actually blend the two together. Your geysers of blood and buckets of feces are so random, they don't fit.

You also need to learn how to snip your film when it gets too long. I don't mind movies that go over two hours, but there was no reason for Black Book to be that long. I know you wanted your final act to be full of kinks and keep your audience on its collective toes, but really, how many red herrings do we need? Self-control, man! I was exhausted by the time we figured out who the real traitor was. I was also fed up with all the convenient coincidences that made Ellis' detective work all the more easier. There are two suitcases full of stolen loot, but each time she gets a peek inside, she sees one of the two items she would actually recognize. How did they get on top? Throughout the last forty-five minutes, anyone who has been paying attention is going to see every move coming. Hmmm, now that insulin is back in the picture, I wonder if those chocolate bars are going to be important, because we were told how chocolate is an antidote for too much insulin an hour ago! Isn't it amazing how all that stuff lines up? I bet if we could get Chekhov on the horn, he'd tell us his biggest regret in life was saying that a gun seen in the first act has to be fired in the third. There's no other storytelling convention that is so abused.

So, yeah, Paul Verhoeven, I'm sorry to say, I'll give you a nice try on this one, but no cigar.Black Book is overwritten and overindulgent, and it's still not grown up enough to understand what it wants to be. I suppose I can't blame the film itself, not when its director is also so obsessed with blood and boobies. You're not that grown up yourself, are you? And, hey, I'm cool with it. Go ahead and be who you are. I'm sure you can talk your way into a Robocop 4. Hell, I might even go see it. I'm capable of being as adolescent as the next guy, I already told you that. Just leave the WWII epics to the big boys.

Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent projects include the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat; Archer Coe and the Thousand Natural Shocks, a loopy crime tale drawn by Dan Christensen; and the horror miniseries Madame Frankenstein, a collaboration with Megan Levens. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.

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