‘Jesus Christ Paul Verhoeven!’: spicy monastic sex with lesbian nuns causes a stir in Cannes

Paul Verhoeven with Virginie Efira and Daphne Patakia in Cannes.Image AP

The Palme d’Or competition in Cannes is not complete without at least one scandal film with fierce supporters and opponents, preferably directed by a true film provocateur. And Paul Verhoeven’s ironic-religious, violent and sexual drama about the 17th-century nun Benedetta Carlini, who was tried by the male church leadership, meets that need during the first weekend of the twelve-day festival in southern France.

‘Jesus Christ Paul Verhoeven!’, headlines the American film magazine variety, ‘Making lesbian nuns and spicy monastic sex Benedetta the talking point of Cannes’.

An attribute from the film, the wooden statue of Mary carved into a penis by one of the nuns – at the bottom – immediately caused a furore online. Hopefully soon for sale as movie merchandise, jokes an English film critic.

In the afternoon before the premiere circus starts, Verhoeven, who will be celebrating his 83rd birthday next week, makes some time for the Dutch press in a hotel on the Croisette. Does he hope the film causes something of a scandal?

‘No’, the director says firmly. ‘And you don’t really know that in advance. People never believe that. But when we got that shot with Sharon in Basic Instinct We didn’t think there was so much special going on with it either. None of the editing team thought, Oh, that’s still being discussed twenty or thirty years later. That is the truth.’

Joan of Arc feeling

The wooden Maria-dildo, he explains, is historical in the sense that in the 17th century women were punished for lesbianism, but were only burned at the stake if an ‘instrument’ had been used – or so it is stated. in historian Judith Brown’s Benedetta book, which inspired the screenplay. And Verhoeven wanted a pyre in his film. “For that Joan of Arc feeling.” The movie attribute is functional, also for the plot. ‘Several lesbians were burned, weren’t they? That’s also in the book.’

Verhoeven says it with an open mind, as if he really didn’t see the consternation coming. Make a film about the historical lesbian nun who uses her Jesus visions and (whether or not) spontaneous stigmata bleeding to seize power within the monastery – and then people fall for that one thing. At the same time, there is also a hint of mockery or pleasure in his gaze when he reports that the film critic of Le Figaro felt ‘scandalized’. ‘I believe it’s a right-wing newspaper. Le Monde is very positive.’

Belgian actress Virginie Efira (44) stars in his film as Benedetta, plagued by savage visions of Jesus and sudden bleeding, who is attracted to the young nun Bartelomea. The calculating abbess (Charlotte Rampling) comes into conflict with the new miracle attraction Benedetta, who may be beneficial to the Tuscan nunnery, but also gains more and more power as ‘Jesus Bride’. The approaching plague epidemic is pushing things to a head.

Benedetta, which can already be seen in French cinemas this weekend, was delayed by two years. First because of the director’s physical discomfort – shortly after shooting – and then because of the virus that torpedoed the 2020 festival. ‘It is a bit alienating, because I’m already busy with other things.’ Verhoeven is working on an American film, among other things. ‘I have an hour of Benedetta looked back, to get back into it for a while.’ Did you like it? Verhoeven grins. “Yes, actually I thought it was very good.”