In 19th century Holland, beautiful young Keetje Tippel (Monique Van de Ven) and her family move to Amsterdam in search of a better life only to find poverty, squalor and sexual degradation. Keetje is soon into prostitution, and becomes the mistress of a young banker (Rutger Hauer) who teaches her the ruthless ways of the Dutch upper class. But even if Keetje’s body can hide the true cost of her innocence, can her soul survive the ultimate price of corruption?
Directed by Paul Verhoeven, this provocative true story (also known as Hot Sweat and A Girl Called Cathy Tippel) was acclaimed by critics worldwide for its bold look at turn-of-the-century socialism as well as its frank – and often shocking – depiction of female sexuality.
Keetje Tippel 7.5
eyelights: Keetje’s fiestiness. Monique van de Ven’s charm. its social commentary.
eyesores: its run-of-the-mill rags-to-riches story.
“Do you like me?” “Does it matter?”
After the incredible success of 1973’s ‘Turks Fruit‘, which remains the most popular Dutch film of all time, Paul Verhoeven was under some not-inconsiderable pressure to repeat it. His ambition translated into the then-most expensive Dutch production, ‘Keetje Tippel’, a historical bio-drama based on the life of Neel Doff.
Released in 1975, it was a hit, but didn’t quite match its predecessor’s success, obviously disappointing producers. But it was also a disappointment to Verhoeven, who saw the picture’s budget and scope trimmed as production began – whereas he wanted to tell two stories at once, he was forced to focus strictly on Neel.
In ‘Keetje Tippel’, Neel is renamed Keetje, a young woman from an incredibly poor background whose family travels from Stavoren to Amsterdam in 1881 to escape extreme poverty. The picture shows us how Keetje struggled to survive in a large family whose only breadwinners were her father and Mina, her brothel-working sister.
A feisty character, Keetje was barely employable: she sung the socialist songs that her father taught her and refused to be plied by her employers and peers. Unfortunately for her, both her father and sister were laid off – so her mother convinced her to sell her sexual favours on the streets to feed their ever-growing family.
Thankfully, she’d soon make a few chance meetings that changed her life.
Frankly, though it’s based on fact, I found the story a bit mundane; the rags-to-riches story is a well-worn genre (no pun intended) and Verhoeven even revisited it with his abysmal ‘Showgirls‘ – though, in his defense, he’s long said that if there was a movie of his that he’d want to remake, it would have to be ‘Keetje Tippel’.
But it’s a well-made film, and I did enjoy the character of Keetje, a strong-willed young woman who did everything to prevent the world from taking advantage of her. Though it inevitably did anyway, it was mostly on her own terms – in as much as circumstances would allow it, given her background and the era she lived in.
I also quite like Monique Van de Ven, who plays Keetje. She was the co-star of ‘Turks Fruit’ and she’d charmed me then, but she proves here that it wasn’t just a fluke: she balanced naiveté and spiritedness quite ably here. There was only one moment in which I felt that she wasn’t natural. But, given how new she was, that’s excellent.
The rest of the cast is also quite good, though some were better than others. Rutger Hauer (who was her co-star in ‘Turks Fruit’) even returns in a small role as one of her wealthy lovers. Though that was a trite move to pander to fans of their previous collaboration, the duo’s dynamic had lost none of its freshness or appeal.
Though it was originally meant to illustrate the burgeoning social movement of the time in tandem with Tippel’s own rise, sadly very little of that remained in the final script. In fact, the thing that I retained the most is how men are portrayed as sex-depraved opportunists, taking advantage of any vulnerable person for gratification.
Now, this is hardly novel (men are frequently viewed this way), but it was interesting to me that Verhoeven chose not to be more explicit, leaving much to the imagination; this wasn’t used as a vehicle to show as much female nudity as possible. In ‘Katie Tippel’, sex is an unfortunate reality of her situation, and that’s all.
In fact, given that he’s a male filmmaker and that he’s been known to use sex to titillate the masses (ex: ‘Turks Fruit’, ‘Basic Instinct‘, ‘Showgirls’), to me it’s pretty surprising that he decided to show men in such a poor light; it’s nearly impossible to watch this movie and not feel shame at the behaviour of the male half of the species.
But, ultimately, Keetje comes out on top. Anyone who know Doff’s life would not be surprised by this, but the picture initially remained mum about its inspiration – only announcing it with a text epilogue after audiences were left in some disbelief (in fact, some opinionated online commentators remain incredulous to this day).
Personally, I wasn’t especially taken with ‘Keetje Tippel’, but it was a very well-made period film. Sure, it begins grim and grey, but it eventually lets rays of sunshine break through – and, by the end, we’re left satisfied with our protagonist’s fate. It’s not world-changing stuff, and it should have been meatier, but it works well anyway.
I’d love to read the original script, though; that must have been something.
Date of viewing: June 10, 2017