Showgirls (1995) Directed by Paul Verhoeven
The daunting dilemma that has faced, and continues to face, Paul Verhoeven’s most notorious American film is whether all the infamy surrounding it makes it a good film or just plain bad, period. I know more people who detest this film than those who love it, yet the latter, unlike the vituperative detractors, profess a passionate defense. The majority of the former group hate it; however, it is not visceral hatred, it is more of a hostile sentiment that has an explicit humorous tone. Much has been criticized about the controversial Dutch filmmaker’s shocking opus: vulgarly campy, schlocky, misogynistic and downright banal. Many opprobrious words can follow these last ones, but they all encompass the same thing and judge this film severely; they pigeonhole it into the most ignominious of 90’s cinema, a mockery that deserves to be mocked apparently. Over time, and today more than ever, for some reason that I will try to elucidate in this review I feel more identified with the group that intensely, though perhaps irrationally, adore and celebrate Showgirls as a misunderstood masterpiece.
It is a delusion to say that it is a perfect film, it is astronomically far from it. However, its so-called excessive profanity has triggered a legitimate debate in the audience that somehow gives it the formidable ability to reshape opinions. The first time I savored the erotic vehemence of Showgirls it left a bitter taste in my mouth, but I never dared to unscrupulously call it an execrable film. It’s gaudy, breathtaking and in equal measures idiotic and intelligent. The second time I decided to give this blatant exercise in feminine carnality another chance, I thought the experience had improved and was much more digestible; I noticed more nuances than before and an ineffable absurdity that I found exquisite. Still, I thought it was neither a good movie nor a disastrous one. Now that I am writing this review, this is the third time I have ventured out again to experience the boundless sleaze of Showgirls, and I must say, this is the first time I feel brave enough to say it’s a damn good movie.
I must confess that I feel ashamed of not having discovered the subtle values that Showgirls hides in its hyperbolic drama earlier on. I sense that I was just as prejudiced as other viewers, mistaking the corrosive concoction of violence, sex and overacting for an exploitative story that’s only meant to exacerbate its audience. Likewise, for some clumsy reason I fell into the trap of calling it a “tasteless satire” as many of its detractors have done. Paul Verhoeven’s fabulously epic extravaganza boldly wants to obfuscate you, wants you to think it’s a kitsch satire and an insipid extravagant production, when in fact it’s a profound examination of the world you criticize so much. Let’s assume that everything you decry about Showgirls as grossly obscene is just one more fact that you refuse to see or accept. Verhoeven has tenaciously made clear with his hyperviolent, sensationalist cinema his fervent fascination with depicting a politically incorrect world. Indeed, to watch a Verhoeven film is to be immersed in the opposite of what is considered correct, conservatively speaking. The “provocative” factor in his filmography is what defines his style, but I think that just as we confuse Showgirls with bad cinema, I believe we misunderstand “sincerity” with provocative. The truthfulness of Showgirls is more allegorical than obvious or superficial, on its surface there is only the elemental to give expressiveness to that inquisitive honesty. With this I am not voicing an irrational defense of dramatic hyperbole as a justification to show something honest, although in this case, more than ever I believe that this abnormal exaggeration in different facets of the film such as acting, atmosphere and theme is functional to the overall honesty.
Showgirls depicts a tantalizing facet of conventional capitalist society. At least in cinema the cons of a society hypnotized by consumerism and dumbed down by hedonism have been portrayed ad nauseam. As in the insufferable but exhilarating period of Jean Luc Godard’s Dziga Vertov group, I get the impression that Paul Verhoeven’s American period is acrimoniously anti-American. They are films made under the modern Hollywood system, and surreptitiously, this Dutch director scathingly condemns not only the system that composes it but its sociopolitical context as well. Chances are that if a mainstream American director had directed Showgirls the film would have been a hit, would have been praised and even won all the academy awards for being a hypocritically sober musical drama about the fallacies of the American dream. But that was not the case, it was a Dutch filmmaker who directed this picture and thank God for that. The Europeanisms imbued in Verhoeven’s style provide him with everything he needs to narrate a story with sheer intensity and audacity. It is certainly unpleasant to see women being treated as sexual objects throughout this epic journey that Showgirls invites us to be part of it; is even more uncomfortable to observe all this in a tone of grotesque frivolity, but part of this theatricality that is so criticized has much to do with the same excesses of our day-to-day life. If you meditate for a minute on the plot of Showgirls, just one, you will instantly realize that Verhoeven got many aspects of postmodern society right. As I’m writing this, while you’re watching Showgirls, it’s more than likely that a dreamy girl is dancing in some lavish club in Las Vegas going through the same thing as Nomi Malone, the anti-heroine of this movie.
When we first meet the ambitious Nomi, played by Elizabeth Berkley, all we know is that she is running away from her past and is on a quest to be a dancing star in Las Vegas at any cost. Her first contact with the city of sin is in a glitzy casino, where playing on one of the flashy gambling machines wins her many coins, literally raining down on her young hands. Her animated smile and epicurean joy as she clutches the copious coins symbolize a world of opportunities. The next moment that pleasure is abruptly wiped away when she discovers that the talkative guy who gave her a ride in his car has just stolen her suitcase and driven off, leaving her all alone in Las Vegas. Although she breaks down in tears and frustration, her tears quickly turn to hope when Molly, played by Gina Ravera, an unknown girl offers her friendship and a home so she can stay. Verhoeven’s rhythmic direction coupled with Joe Eszterhas’ exasperating writing in just the first 20 minutes establishes the narrative method by which the plot will be coordinated. This is one of the vibrant details of this story, it plays with us with the same burlesque brutality as it does with the characters. It gives us high doses of hedonism but the instant it gets too juicy it takes it away and materializes an invasive nihilism intermingled with hostile nonsense. As we watch Nomi climb to stardom and increasingly into a state of ecstasy where ambition becomes lethal and paradoxical, that cruel game I mentioned earlier becomes more draconian. Along the way, between terrific erotic dances and salacious choreographies, she meets Cristal, played by Gina Gershon, a famous dancer who helps her climb up the ladder in this competitive industry. The professional relationship between the two begins with belligerent comments, showing a sexy and threatening tension. In the manner of Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s sophisticated masterpiece, All About Eve, though without that unsurpassed elegance and wit, Showgirls uses much of its rhetoric. The rivalry between Cristal and Nomi becomes as suggestive as it is dangerous in a battle of personalities that emphasizes a decadent society.
All the male characters in this movie are despicable, the most conspicuous of these misogynistic types is played by Kyle MacLachlan. He sexually manipulates Nomi, and she does the same to him. A vicious cycle that exemplifies the moral negligence of the human species whenever we become obsessed with power. Money and fame are two more protagonists in Showgirls, each character is capable of doing anything as long as it leads to “success” and the luxuries it represents. The only immorality you will find in Showgirls is the rudeness that encourages misinterpretation, everything else is a critical description of the amorality that our secular society has established, which I find terrifying. Today we see money as an end and not as a means, we live to obtain it and in the end in the process of desiring too much we lose our humanity. Who would have thought that in the midst of so much breast exposure and pornographic dancing some social philosophy could be conveyed, and Showgirls seems to do it exceptionally well. During the clash of egos that takes place in a large percentage of the middle acts, one can notice many flaws, more technical than narrative. Verhoeven stylizes each frame with thrilling camera movements that seem to be under the effects of the cocaine the characters are on, yet it seems to operate on an irritating autopilot, constantly wanting to be portentous without leaving room for introspection. Once inside, the overacting goes from laughable to interestingly bizarre, but unfortunately Verhoeven’s direction doesn’t give them a chance to embrace dramatic sobriety. That’s why Berkley’s explosive, hyper-gestural acting never manages to even out her character’s emotions; there’s never a moment to do so and her unbridled acting rhythm is perpetually kept in a stressful, temperamental adrenaline rush. For all its faults, which I accept, I appreciate each and every one of the zany performances in this film, they are unique, trashy but unique.
Showgirls was a massive box office flop, although it was a hit in video rentals. Actually, it doesn’t surprise me at all that this film continues to be mocked, criticized and scorned, it’s a complicated piece of 90’s cinema that still doesn’t seem to make either side right, neither those who say it’s bad nor those of us who say it’s good. That’s all it takes to elucidate how little we really know about cinema and its hidden wonders as a language. A film that generates debate whether negative or positive is still a fascinating work of cinema, the controversy proves it. I’m not sure if I’ll ever see this epic of grandiloquent eroticism again but I’m grateful to have finally appreciated its deep textures more scrupulously than I did the previous times. It’s must-see cinema. I have nothing more to add, judge it with caution.