The movie Showgirls is infamous. It’s burnt its way into the pop consciousness in a way that few films do. Now Showgirls-apologist Jeffrey McHale is here with You Don’t Nomi, a documentary that forces you to re-examine the film. Is it a glorious flop, a misunderstood masterpiece or something else entirely?
The treatise behind You Don’t Nomi is that you can’t understand Showgirls without understanding the oeuvre of director Paul Verhoeven and the cultural context of 1995 USA. To illustrate this McHale has assembled a group of film critics, theorists and fans who dissect the movie and reveal, if not its hidden gems, maybe its hidden motivations.
McHale starts by highlighting the strengths – stunning cinematography, set design, costuming and frequent foreshadowing of elements. Just as Verhoeven satirised violence in RoboCop and Starship Troopers, Showgirls sees him satirising American’s attitudes toward sex. The doc then moves on to the films obvious weaknesses; ridiculous performances and bizarre obsessions (I’d never noticed the constant references to nails and chips), before finally looking at the film as a combination of both.
Presented purely in voice over, the raft of academics, critics and fans dissect the film and the contemporary reaction to it. McHale called out the tendency of Verhoeven to try to rewrite history and claim he intended the film to be the hot mess it became. What’s missing is any new interview with Verhoeven, any of the crew or cast; they are present through the use of archive interviews and public appearances.
What works particularly well is McHale‘s use of footage from Verhoeven’s entire filmography to make his points, showing the recurring themes and using the filmmaker’s own work to poke fun at Showgirls. The obsessions with sex and violence would ultimately win Verhoeven the Golden Globe in 2016 with Elle.
Fans of Showgirls will appreciate the serious consideration that has gone into this documentary, while amused detractors are likely to find the cult classic even more ridiculous than they’d previously thought. Ultimately You Don’t Nomi proves that Showgirls is, above all else, an iconic film that has earned its place in the pop cultural cannon no matter how it got there.
By Chad Armstrong
You Don’t Nomi plays the BFI LFF.