Yes, Paul Verhoeven's first feature was a comedy - and it's a genre the director admits on his lively commentary track that he wants to revisit after decades of cinematic raunchy sex and violence.
Not unlike many directors who make the leap from television to film, Verhoeven imported many actors and technicians from his popular TV series, "Floris," which starred Rutger Hauer as a 'Dutch Ivanhoe.' He also had the good sense to bring along screenwriter Gerard Soeteman, who's flair for light humour and solid dramatic structure gave "Business Is Business" a sense of loopy fun with a refined focus.
Based on a series of observations of Holland's famous Red Light District, Albert Mol assembled his anecdotes from Amsterdam's gay sex trade into a novel of brief, non-narrative sketches. Although Soeteman somewhat gentrified the stories to a heterosexual environment, the script also made use of industry interviews conducted by the screenwriter and director Verhoeven (who, faithful to his persona, laments at not having taken any of the interviewed prostitutes for a trial run).
Verhoeven covers a lot of ground in this continuously interesting track, giving background to the film's popular Dutch cast - co-star Sylvia de Leur came from a cabaret background, as did Albert Mol, who also makes an appearance as de Leur's blind date suffering from a snobby nose and Stand Laurel ticks - and he gives a brisk overview of Holland's political and sexual climate during the early Seventies.
"Business Is Business" (better translated as "What Do I See?") was the first venture of German/Dutch producer Rob Houwer, and while distributors were less than hopeful of the film's potential, it ultimately became a top grosser in 1971, even surprising its filmmakers; had the box office not been so busy, Houwer may not have honored his promise to let Verhoeven make "Turkish Delight" his next film.
Unlike his later works, "Business Is Business" doesn't contain graphic naughty bits, sadism, or gore; at several career retrospectives, programmers have often ignored this film, considering it an anomaly and a lesser Verhoeven work (a decision that even baffles the director). Unreleased in America, the film did tremendous business in Holland, but producer Houwer found the regional humour, dialects and cultural references alienated foreign audiences.
No sets were used in the film - part economic, but a factor that enhanced the sense of realism amid the bizarre male clients who paid the enterprising prostitutes to enact wacko fantasies - and viewers will certainly find the look quite startling: make-up, clothes, and interior décor collectively reflect the nadir of noxious Seventies style.
The sexual and censorial openness of late Sixties/early Seventies resulted in a bevy of sex comedies of extreme quality from many countries, though few directors managed to use these first efforts as springboards towards a career with legs. Verhoeven's commentary certainly reveals he learned a great deal making short films and working in television, and though the film's look is very dated, "Business Is Business" - for fans of the sex comedy genre - retains a genuine bawdy charm.
Verhoeven also admits he's been developing a risqué comedy for several years, it's clear from his self-reflections that he's become a victim of the Action Director persona: claims the project's budget is a major stumbling factor come off as a defense mechanism to stay within the confines of studio product; and where Steven Soderbergh has ventured between genres, formats and extreme budgets in his own career, it seems Verhoeven's will to experiment is heavily tempered by a complacency from the studio system.
In additional to a detailed Director Bio, the DVD includes the film's theatrical trailer ("The Red Light District of Amsterdam 1971… Finally!") with many scene spoilers, and some stills from the director's own collection (mostly cast production shots, and a few nostalgic stills of long lines in front of a movie theatre.)
This title is available separately, or as part of the "The Paul Verhoeven" boxed set (DV11957). The slickly designed set includes "Business Is Business," "The 4th Man," "Katie Tippel," "Soldier of Orange," and "Turkish Delight" and plus a 12-page colour booklet.
© 2004 Mark R. Hasan