Directed by: Paul Verhoeven | 115 minutes | drama | Actors: Hans van Tongeren, Reneé Soutendijk, Toon Agterberg, Maarten Spanjer, Marianne Boyer, Rutger Hauer, Jeroen Krabbé, Hugo Metsers sr., Peter Tuinman, Saskia ten Batenburg, Yvonne Valkenburg, Ab Abspoel, Rudi Falkenhagen, Hans Veerman, Ben Aerden , Kitty Courbois, Margot Keune, Jonna Koster
America has Larry Clark, Japan Miike Takashi and the Netherlands had/has Paul Verhoeven: these are directors who push the boundaries of decency. In short: these men are not averse to kicking society in the shins. Clark did this with films like ‘Kids’ and ‘Ken Park’ in which he explicitly portrayed the sexual escapades of young teenagers. The Japanese Takashi takes a more rigorous approach and seizes every opportunity to offend critics with a good portion of sex and violence, which he films as graphically as possible. ‘Our’ Paul Verhoeven turned the Netherlands upside down by showing homosexual love scenes and straight sex in close-up in a film. That movie was ‘Spitters’.
In ‘Sputters’ it is about a group of young people who try to brighten up their boring lives with sex and motocross. The boys discover that growing up isn’t easy. Especially with the arrival of the free-spirited Fientje (Soutendijk), a young woman who tries at all costs to break through the grind of daily life. She doesn’t like her life as a chip maker anymore. Fientje’s arrival causes an ever-widening rift in the boys’ once close friendship. It turns out that the girl is a real temptress who uses her body to get her way. Then something terrible happens to Rien (Van Tongeren), the most popular of the motocross friends.
So much for the story. At first glance you would say that what you see is nothing special. But we’re talking about a Paul Verhoeven movie here, so prepare yourself for some hard scenes and shocking denouements. As is customary, this work by the Dutch filmmaker also contains some very explicit nude scenes and violent outbursts. That had not escaped the attention of the media and at the time of its release ‘Sputters’ was heavily criticized. The Netherlands reacted incredibly violently to the film. For example, the NASA action committee (Netherlands Anti-Spatters Action) was set up to denounce Verhoeven’s work for the allegedly discriminatory portrayal of women and homosexuals. And when the news came out that Hollywood hero Steven Spielberg left the room halfway through the film because of the raunchy sex in ‘Sputters’, nobody in our little country could ignore the film. And that was precisely Verhoeven’s intention. Due to the riot surrounding his production, the cinemas filled up and Verhoeven’s name was established. While conservative Netherlands shuddered, the director laughed in his hand: he had a hit in his hands.
If you watch the film now, you won’t be shocked any time soon. Yes, ‘Sputters’ has a lot of nude scenes and some passages in this film are violent, but it’s nothing that would keep you awake at night. The film industry has gone through many developments, including pushing the boundaries. What used to be shocking is now accepted. In particular, the way in which violence is portrayed has changed significantly. Nowadays, no one looks up or down from a graphically depicted fight. Strangely enough, our view of sex has become much less permissive. Not many films unabashedly show the naked bodies of actors, as Verhoeven did in ‘Spetters’ and before that ‘Turks Fruit’. What struck the public against the chest in 1980 was the explicit way in which Verhoeven portrayed gay sex. ‘Spitters’ has a few scenes in which oral and anal sex is practiced. But ‘ordinary’ heterosex also left nothing to be desired in terms of clarity. So you cannot accuse Verhoeven of hypocrisy. Of mischievous pranks, yes.
Verhoeven has always been a director who pushed the boundaries. In almost all his film he tried to offend people in order to provoke discussions. And every time he seems to succeed in his aim, also with ‘Spitters’. Only the stubborn director could not have imagined that his print would make so many tongues. The motives Verhoeven had when making this film were noble, but unfortunately he went a bit too far. By filming each sex scene as explicitly as possible, it distracts attention from the story. The unvarnished way in which Verhoeven works seems to be purely aimed at shocking his audience. This also applies to the scenes of violence in which homosexuals have to suffer. People of strict faith also turned out to be a walking keg of gunpowder, where the plugs could blow at any moment. The subjects of homosexuality and aggression within the faith were apparently very sensitive in the Netherlands. Verhoeven certainly has a point with those subjects, but the filmmaker tried to cram too much into one film. The result is that as a viewer you get to see one ‘special’ event after another, without it being worked out satisfactorily. Verhoeven portrays it too casually to be able to kick against as many holy houses as possible. And that’s a shame, because ‘Sputters’ is so much more than a simple ‘shocker’.
The story of ‘Sputters’ may be quite thin, but the way in which Verhoeven has directed his cast is very impressive. The actors are generally very strong. Van Tongeren and Soutendijk in particular stand out with their natural interpretations. The cameo appearances of Verhoeven’s ‘regular’ actors Rutger Hauer and Jeroen Krabbé are also fun to watch. Unfortunately, not all actors are equally well placed, especially Maarten Spanjer stands out very pale from the rest with his lackluster playing. And Agterberg is also unable to convince across the board as a latent, leg-ramming homosexual. That doesn’t really disturb, because the lesser actors are taken care of by their capable opponents. Moreover, the many well-known headlines make you quickly forget about the lesser gods.
In which Verhoeven has succeeded brilliantly is in the accurate characterization of his characters. The filmmaker has made no concessions to spice up his film with misplaced romance or toned down emotions. Regardless of what you think about the heavy dose of sex and violence in ‘Spitters’, it is reality. The coarse and clumsy way in which young people interact with each other is not an invention of the director. The raw way in which sex is presented in this film is also much closer to reality than the romanticized way in which Hollywood films portray eroticism. You can then again question the frequent, and often unnecessarily long, way in which Verhoeven has incorporated sex in his film.
Under the tinge of controversy, ‘Sputters’ is above all a beautiful, moving film about young people growing up who struggle with their identity and sexuality. But Verhoeven wouldn’t be Verhoeven if he didn’t wrap this universal tale of adolescence in the razor-sharp and frayed jacket that made him so famous and infamous. Impressive movie.