Paul Verhoeven is clearly one of modern cinema's most controversial directors. A kind of high class Renny Harlin, or a Dutch version of Oliver Stone, Verhoeven likes to mix politics and violence, and has a knack for picking projects that are apt to outrage whole segments of the populace. Long before his lesbo action film Basic Instinct and the widely ridiculed Showgirls (for which many viewers, including this one, have a secret affection), Verhoeven was in trouble for, among other things, Spetters, his tale of life among Holland's motorcycle set, which was protested by various special interest groups in his homeland. The fallout from this film, and his later The Fourth Man, encouraged his eventual decision to vacate Holland for Hollywood, where he started off making RoboCop.
Spetters contrasts the lives of three friends. First there is Rien (Hans van Tongeren, who, like the character he plays, ended his life early), the most charismatic of the lot. He is a successful motocross sportsman and the future competitor of a local hero, Gerrit Witkamp (Rutger Hauer; Verhoeven-reg Jeroen Krabbé also has a small part as a corruptible sports broadcaster). His best friend Eef (Toon Agterberg) is a violent homophobe who turns out to be gay. Finally, there is Hans (Maarten Spanjer), the "loser," whose bike is always breaking down, who never gets the girl, and who suffers other humiliations. That he ends up with the obligatory fox is one of the film's many ironies (though given that this is a Dutch film, all the female cast members are foxes).
The lead fox is Fientje (Renée Soutendijk), a curly-haired blonde with a BabySpice face and pert nipples under tight shirts. She dances her way through all three youths, and she's like a character out of a Billy Wilder film, a heel who finally cannot resist his own humanity. Fientje is a traveling merchant, dispensing fast food with her brother out of a van. She wants something better, symbolized by the high class woman in a fur coat and expensive boots she spies on the street, and first Rien, then Eef, and finally Hans, seem to be the only people she's met who look like they have a chance at something better. Her plans seem to go awry when Rien suffers a freak, yet fate-filled accident.
Verhoeven imagined this, his first film from an original screenplay (credited to Gerard Soeteman) rather than an adaptation of a novel, as a companion piece to Soldier of Orange, with this film portraying a different kind of heroism. Set among working class kids seeking a way out of boredom and economic stasis. There are many subplots in this film, all very well balanced. For example, Rien starts out with an Indonesian girlfriend, and she in turns becomes a Christian. When she takes him to a revival meeting in hopes that the evangelist will cure Rien's paralysis, that moment goes as awry as everything else in his life at the moment. Dutch Christians didn't much like that scene. Spetters is also a frank, if not brazen film, with lots of male nudity to accompany the female nudity. But the film is also very funny in its crude way. A scene where two nearby couples both fake their orgasms to fool each other is a treat.
No ostensibly straight director outside of Bernardo Bertolucci uses as much gay iconography as Verhoeven. A key scene in Basic Instinct was silently set in a gay cowboy bar in San Francisco. In this film, not only is there a prominent gay character, but gay iconography infiltrates other aspects of the film. For example, an "evil" motorcycle gang out of the Wild One is dressed in leather and caps that evoke Drummer more than Hunter S. Thompson. Spetters is the kind of story that in American hands would have become a programmatic coming of age tale, very smooth and commercial. Verhoeven, as he is wont to do, takes risks and makes the film something special.
VIDEO: A release in MGM's "World Films" series, the disc comes with a wide screen image (1.66:1) that is in quite good shape, with no obvious flaws or distracting scratches. The image seems a tad pale, but then that was the style or the product of technological "improvements" of the time. The box doesn't indicate if the film is enhanced for wide screen televisions and the disc seems not to be, as it doesn't make that telltale "unsqueezing" transition when going from menu to film and back.
SOUND: The Dolby Digital mono track is OK for a film with lots of motorcycle sound and a lengthy disco scene. Subtitles come in English, French, and Spanish. The disc is also close captioned.
MENUS:The static, silent menu offers 16 chapter scene selection for the 123 minute movie.
EXTRAS: Supplements are two-fold for Spetters. There is the theatrical trailer, followed by an audio track by Verhoeven. The trailer is just over two minutes and successfully summarizes the film without necessarily making you want to see it. The yak track is very good. Verhoeven is a loquacious speaker, pays attention to the screen as he is talking, and seems to have done a modicum of research or self "reminding" before sitting down to lay the track. The director proves to be quite frank about the gay subplot, which he thought, obviously, would come across as true and compassionate, and was stunned at the response. He also seems truly heartbroken over the early death of lead van Tongeran, whose own inner turmoil may have contributed to the quality of his performance. The only aspect of the track that seems disingenuous is Verhoeven's recounting of the financial history of the film. Verhoeven had a dramatic falling out with his long time producing partner Rob Houwer. Spetters was produced by a new member of the Verhoeven team, Joop van den Ende, a wealthy investor. Verhoeven's account of this transition is rather calm and orderly, along the lines of: these things happen, it's the business, everyone's still friends. This version is in sharp contrast to the situation presented in Rob van Scheers's biography of Verhoeven, in which the director is portrayed as spitting mad, and who confided to his diary, "We are no more than dumb employees…I want: more money, more respect, and more enjoyment in my work." They probably do all get along now, but the usually combustible director is unusually serene when recalling events of 24 years ago.