FILM REVIEW: Spetters (1980)

Spetters (Netherlands, 1980)
Directed by Paul Verhoeven
Starring Hans von Tongeren, Toon Agterberg, Maarten Spanjer, Renee Soutendijk

Long before he unleashed his particular brand of filmmaking on an unsuspecting Hollywood, Paul Verhoeven was kicking up a fuss in his native Netherlands with a series of playfully provocative films. Having won acclaim for period dramas Katie Tippel and Soldier of Orange, Spetters was the film which set the tone for his later career: lambasted in the press but loved by audiences, and with Verhoeven always having the last laugh.Spetters is a coming of age film set in and around Rotterdam, which follows the stories of three young men aiming to become motocross racing champions. In the manner of all Verhoeven films, it marries full-on sex, violence and strong language with subtle and often intelligent insights into the human condition. The title epitomises this, being both slang for pretty young men and a word meaning 'splatters' - the sound the chip pan fat makes when the female lead tips it down the naked chest of a leather-clad thug.Spetters is what you would get if you put The Wild One, Rebel Without A Cause and Saturday Night Fever in a blender, and then inhaled the contents in the middle of a drunken rave. The latter is most evident in the cocky attitude of the male characters, along with a scene early on of the mechanic Eef showing off in the disco, only to be outclassed by an unnamed rival. The costumes take on elements from all these films, with Eef's penchant for leather nodding towards Marlon Brando and Rutger Hauer's perfect silver hair rivalling anything that John Travolta could produce.As you would expect from a coming of age film, much of Spetters is concerned with our male protagonists trying to score with women and coming away with a little more than bruised egos. And coming in the middle of the gross-out wave of Animal House, Porky's and Lemon Popsicle, it's only natural to anticipate that such scenes would leave a sour, guilty taste in the mouth. But such scenes are also a showcase for Verhoeven at his best: setting up a given situation, allowing things to turn a little seedy, and then defying our expectations with a cracking punch-line.Two examples in Spetters illustrate this ability. The first comes in the disco when one of the men starts chatting up a black woman. He buys her a beer and starts to stroke her leg, flirting with her in a typically unsubtle way. Despite her protestations, he puts his hand under her dress - and brings it out with a strange yellow gunk on his fingers. We grimace in disgust, only to burst into raucous laughter when the woman lifts up her dress to reveal a jar of mustard between her legs. Talk about taking precautions.The second such instance comes soon after, when two of the bikers and their respective girlfriends have snuck onto a building site to have sex. Having chosen their spots, one of the girls reveals that she is on her period - which the boyfriend grossly demonstrates by bringing up two bloody fingers. Hearing his friend moaning and panting next door, he asks the girl to fake having sex with him, and together they try to out-moan their friend. Having assumed that the other couple are having great sex, Verhoeven then cuts to a wide shot which shows said couple doing exactly the same!

But the wild antics of these men are not confined to the bedroom. The racing sequences in Spetters are shot with real energy and panache: Verhoeven gets his camera in close and uses long takes, so that when the spectacular crashes happen, we think that people are genuinely getting hurt. The sense of youthful vigour present in these scenes prevents them from becoming gratuitous: Verhoeven clearly identifies with the drives and urges of these young men, and has sought to communicate this in the most natural way he knows.Having taken its time in setting up the three main characters, Spetters really gets into gear when the main love interest arrives in the shape of Fientje, played with feisty abandon by Renée Soutendijk. She arrives inauspiciously with her brother in tow to run a fast food van in the centre of town, but over the course of the film she seduces all three men, ruining the life of Rien and Eef and changing Hans' destiny forever.The film sets up Fientje as a dangerous outsider whom the community does not accept. The only reason the police allow her and her brother to stay is because she gives the officer a 'cup of coffee' (in other words, a sexual favour). Eef's father, who is a devout Calvinist, goes so far as to brand her a "whore of Babylon". But as with Verhoeven's subsequent works, particularly The Fourth Man and Basic Instinct, the role of 'evil women' is not quite as clear cut as would first seem.Spetters, like all Verhoeven's best work, calls characters' identities into question and leaves us confused as to whom we are really rooting for. The device of seduction is employed to show just how much there is to becoming a man - in other words, there is more to finding out who you are than losing your virginity, or scoring with the best woman in town. Fientje's own motivations are up for debate: she starts as a serial maneater, a femme fatale who wants Rien's riches for a new fur coat. But in the end she is confused as the others, unsure of herself and of her fate.There is some kind of moral point in the fate of the three men. Rien is seduced by the money Fientje gets him through sponsorship, but he ends up losing the only woman he really loved. When he finally gets the chance to express it, he is unable to do so: the accident has claimed not only his ability to perform sexually, but all his accompanying confidence and self-esteem.Eef desperately wants to seduce Fientje, but the more time he spends with her, the more he becomes convinced that he is deceiving himself - a conviction which culminates in him coming out as gay and hooking up with her brother. It's an odd way to find yourself, but the end point, the realisation of identity, is the same. Meanwhile Hans, the best-endowed of the group, should be first in line to claim Fientje as his own. But being too shy and inept to pull her, he ends up making something of himself and wins her heart by seeing her as something more than a possible conquest.Naturally, all this seduction results in a lot of nudity. Sometimes the flesh-bearing is funny, such as an early sequence of Rien, Eef and Hans in the garage measuring their manhoods with a spanner. But others are deeply uncomfortable, like the very tough sequence of Eef being gang-raped in the subway after stealing from a gigolo. Even for long-term Verhoeven fans, who are used to this kind of thing, you will start to lose patience as the film tips further into lazy soft-core territory.Alongside its rampant nudity, Spetters pulls no punches when it has to get violent. Outside of the dangerous racing early in the film, there is one particularly wince-inducing moment where Rien suffers an accident that will leave him crippled. Having been hit in the face by a bag of orange peel, Rien goes flying from his bike, rolls down the verge and (in tight close up) catches his leg on a stone pillar. Having made us squirm and then laugh before, Verhoeven turns that approach on its head to effectively show the demise of this character. The end comes with Rien trundling his electric wheelchair back to the motorway to kill himself - a scene made all the more harrowing by the fact that actor Hans von Tongeren took his own life two years later.Spetters is a visceral and often hilarious comedy-drama which offers plenty in the way of thrills and spills. Like a lot of coming of age stories, its plot is far too thin, and it resorts to a few too many gross-out moments to keep us interested. But in the sections when it works, it finds Verhoeven firing on all cylinders, delivering substance in the midst of violent sleaze. It's not up there with The Fourth Man or his early work in Hollywood, but it remains good, guilty-pleasure fun.

Rating: Photobucket
Verdict: Raucous and relentless


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