Tuesday, June 4, 2013

#27: Katie's Passion

Drive In Movie Classics
Disc 7: Side B

A brief glance at the synopsis for Katie’s Passion might lead you to expect some cheap, sexploitation-style thrills from this tale of a young woman’s descent into the world of prostitution. After all, this is the Fifty Pack, semi-disreputable institution of talking monster trucks, voodoo exorcists, men in gorilla suits and other unrefined cinematic entertainments. And yet, like the potentially seedy Black Hooker before it, Katie’s Passion turns out to be a sincere and somewhat sobering look at gender and class. Not only that but it was directed by Paul Verhoeven in his Dutch-language, pre-giant-space-bugs days--so it‘s got some talent behind the camera.

It’s the late 19th century. To eke out even the most rudimentary existence--so some helpful onscreen text explains--families are fleeing from their homes in the countryside to the big city. One such family is the Tippels, who we first see huddling under a dockside shelter from the rain, waiting to board a ship to Amsterdam. “You’d soon be rich if you’d put those girls to work,” the captain tells the father, leering in the direction of Katie (Monique van de Ven) and Mina (Hannah de Leeuwe).

Soon after arriving at their new home--a basement-level hovel that floods during a rainstorm--Katie finds a job at a wool-dying mill. “Blood,” she cries in bewilderment upon discovering the chemicals in the dye have burned through the flesh on her hands. “Under my nails,” she says, “it’s bleeding.” The look of stupefaction on the actresses’ face, as though she’s never seen something as mundane and awful as her own blood, turns what might otherwise be a throwaway moment in the film to one of genuine horror. We’re witnessing the loss of innocence, and the cruel laughter of Katie’s fellow workers makes it all the more harrowing. It’s reminiscent in some ways of the famous locker room scene in Carrie and Sissy Spacek’s near-existential terror at her own unexpectedly unfamiliar body.      

Later that same day, Katie winds up in a scuffle with the other women at the mill and is promptly fired. From there, she finds work as an errand girl for a small haberdashery, whose clientele include a local brothel. Here, at the brothel, Katie experiences another moment of disillusionment when she comes upon her older sister Mina, who it turns out has been turning tricks since the family’s arrival in Amsterdam. Mina convinces Katie to let one of the brothel’s elderly customers fondle her in a darkened room, and it isn’t long before Katie, too, is turning tricks for a living.  

The third act focuses onthe relationship between Katie and Hugo (an impossibly young Rutger Hauer), a wealthy banker and a regular at the brothel, who takes a liking to Katie. He buys her fancy clothes, teaches her how to ride horseback and, in one poignant scene, takes her out to an upscale restaurant with a menu so extensive and convoluted it seems to befuddle, delight and frighten Katie in equal measure.

Eventually, Hugo offers Katie a house of her own if she agrees to remain his mistress once he marries a proper and respectable girl. Katie, realizing the terrible superficiality of this life, flees Hugo’s mansion and stumbles, confused, through the darkness. The camera suddenly reveals a parade of the working class, marching determinedly down the narrow streets of the city as they sing and wave banners in protest of poor working conditions. Katie finds herself swept up in their mass, singing along with them. Abruptly, the parade comes to a halt. A row of policemen blocks their way. Shots are fired into the crowd. Torches are tossed back at the police. Bodies fall on wet cobblestone. Frantic, the crowd scrambles. It’s during this thrilling sequence Katie’s Passion becomes something remarkable, though not for reason of plot: The Verhoeven of the solemn period piece has receded and for a moment or two we're given a glimpse of the ridiculously kinetic director to come. 

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