Dutch director Paul Verhoeven, later to scandalize Hollywood with the sexually provocative one-two punch of Basic Instinct (1992) and Showgirls (1995), first made noise on the international scene with Turkish Delight, an almost-explicit romantic drama that carried an X-rating during its original American release. Starring Rutger Hauer, the charismatic Dutch actor who earned global visibility over the course of several collaborations with Verhoeven, Turkish Delight is a something of a raunchy cousin to the American blockbuster Love Story (1970). Like that picture, Turkish Delight depicts young love tainted by tragedy. Unlike the Ali MacGrew/Ryan O’Neal tearjerker, Turkish Delight is an almost unrelentingly vulgar enterprise, thanks to abrasive characterizations, in-your-face storytelling, and startling onscreen content including excrement, full-frontal nudity, murder (in a dream sequence), projectile vomiting, and seemingly endless variations of sexual coupling.
Verhoeven has always been a peculiar sort of a sensualist, and rarely has he indulged himself more than he does throughout Turkish Delight.
Based on a novel by Jan Wolkers, Turkish Delight opens on debauched artist Eric (Hauer). Living in squalor and tormented by grim visions, he spends all his time wooing women back to his studio for aggressive sexual encounters, only to discard the women after he’s satisfied his urges. Before long, the film shifts to an extended flashback depicting Eric’s relationship with Olga (Monique van de Ven). They meet when Eric hitches a ride in her car. Moments later, Olga pulls over so they can have at each other. Afterward, Eric accidentally gets his penis caught in his zipper, leading to a strangely funny scene: Olga drives to a nearby farm and borrows a pair of pliers, so the farmer and his wife watch, aghast, as Eric frees himself, then hands over the pliers, now festooned with a chunk of bloody flesh.
Similar shock-value moments permeate Turkish Delight. Eric finds a horse’s eye in a bowl of stew. He lovingly handles Olga’s feces, and he offers (twice) to drink her urine. Close-ups depict a dog taking a dump in one scene, maggots crawling on rotting food in another. Woven into this extreme material is an overwrought but well-acted romantic saga. Olga ignores her parents’ disdain for the penniless Eric because she loves him, but her mood swings drive them apart. Then, when Eric discovers that the cause of Olga’s emotional changes is a health crisis, he tries to reconnect with her.
For some viewers, Verhoeven’s visceral style clearly elevated the experience of the film, because Turkish Delight enjoyed a rapturous response in the Netherlands. Reportedly the most successful film ever made in that country, Turkish Delight also earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Film. Indeed, some aspects of the movie are beyond reproach. The acting is excellent, the direction is forceful, and the harmonica-driven score by Rogier van Otterloo is evocative. Yet Turkish Delight is not for everyone. Some may find the gross-out stuff distracting and juvenile, while others will accept those elements as germane to a gritty depiction of intense love.
Turkish Delight: FUNKY