Tuesday, May 16, 2017
Director Report Card: Paul Verhoeven (1985)
Flesh + Blood
After the controversy and attempted censorship that greeted his last two films, Paul Verhoeven grew increasingly dissatisfied with the Dutch film industry. His next feature would be his first in English, a Dutch, Italian, Spanish, and American co-production. “Flesh + Blood” was an attempt by Verhoeven and Gerard Soeteman to build on unused material for their old swashbuckling show “Floris.” Yet production would be troubled. Verhoeven choose to shoot without storyboards and quickly came to regret that decision. The producers were pushy and demanded changes. There would be tension between the director and Rutger Hauer, leading to their relationship ending. Upon release, “Flesh + Blood” would be widely cut and censored, failing to generate much box office interest.
The year is 1501. The place is a battle ravaged Italy. A group of mercenaries, led by a man named Martin, have been hired to retake a city ruled by King Arnolfini. After a successful mission, Arnolfini refuses to give the mercenaries the loot they were promised. The gang also dig up a statue of St. Martin, which they take as a sign that Martin should be their leader. For revenge, he kidnaps Agnes, a virginal noblewoman promised to Arnolfini's son. Soon, the girl seemingly falls in love with Martin. The gang siege a near-by castle, claiming it for their own. Yet attacks from Arnolfini and Agnes' suitor, the threat of the plague, and disloyalty within the group threatens to destroy Martin's newly acquired home.
I've never seen “Floris” but, from everything I've read, it sounds like a typical medieval adventure show. “Flesh + Blood” is a blatant deconstruction of that story. The 1500s aren't portrayed as glamorous and shiny. Instead, Verhoeven intentionally depicted the time period as ugly and unpleasant. There's not a single surface in the film that isn't caked with mud and grime. The opening and closing battles take place in a downpour, the characters getting soaked. Murder rules the land. Rape is commonplace. Everyone dies and dies badly. It's a deeply cynical age too. Nobody's motivations can be taken at face value. “Fresh + Blood” was ahead of its time in this regard, as gritty depictions of classical areas are now in vogue. There's even a catchy phrase for it: Mudpunk. And “Flesh + Blood” is definitely an early example of mudpunk.
The casual amoral attitudes of “Flesh + Blood” accumulates in a sickening gang rape scene. Yes, this is Paul Verhoeven's third movie to feature an intense, graphic rape sequence. Which really makes you wonder what the director's hang-up with sexual assault is. The rape occurs after Agnes is abducted by Martin and the other mercenaries. After several other men attempt to force themselves on her, Martin takes the girl for himself. Verhoeven lingers on the mechanics of the assault. The men and women in the gang hold Agnes up and present her for him. There's multiple shots of thrusting asses and parted legs. The scene concludes with Agnes seemingly beginning to enjoy the assault, promising her love to Martin. Which is such an unnerving, confusing moment that I really do believe Verhoeven is mostly just fucking with us.
In fact, the movie supports the theory that Agnes being raped into loving Martin is a ploy to throw audiences off. All throughout “Flesh + Blood's” run time, the film teases with the idea that Agnes is only pretending to love Martin, so that she's not killed. In the final act, she's given a chance to let Martin dies. She saves him. Later, she leaves him to die. Yet even after burning the castle down, even after he attempts to strangle her, she pauses before walking away. Many of the romantic scenes between Martin and Agnes are played totally straight. Such as a lengthy and genuinely erotic love scene in a bath tub. It's really up for the viewer to decide whether or not there's anything sincere about her feelings or if Agnes is just trying to survive. The film seemingly leaves room for both interpretation. (If the latter is true, it's another trouble example of a Verhoeven women using her status as a sexual object to succeed.)
Maybe one of the reasons “Flesh + Blood” seems uncertain about the quote-unquote love story is because the international producers were actively pushing for a romantic subplot. So Jennifer Jason Leigh's Agnes became co-leads with Rutger. Still, it's hard to imagine “Flesh + Blood” without Leigh's unique presence. When introduced, Leigh's Agnes strikes the viewer as deeply innocent. She is so naive that she actually asks her maid how sex works. When she's shown, Agnes lashes out violently. Throughout “Flesh + Blood,” Leigh maintains a sense of innocence, even when marching around nude or having rowdy sex. (Which is often.) There's a strange power in Jennifer Jason Leigh's eyes, a youthful beauty paired with an inscrutable cunning. In many ways, she gives the best performance in the film.
There's a large supporting cast in “Flesh + Blood,” even though Hauer and Leigh are clearly the stars. Tom Burlinson plays Steven, the prince Agnes is engaged to. Burlinson is in the tricky position of playing a villain, whose goal is rescue the princess from the raping, murdering looters. Burlinson pulls this off by portraying Steven as a know-it-all twit, easily disliked by the audience. Susan Tyrrell has a showy, notable part as Celine, the wench that has ingrained herself in Martin's group. Tyrell portrays a real sadness throughout her performance, such as an early scene where she demands her stillborn child receives a proper burial. The scratchy voiced Ronald Lacey plays the unnamed Cardinal, a memorably off-beat character. Eighties action heavy Brion James also has a small role as an especially rowdy member of the gang. Jack Thompson's Hawkwood played a larger role in the original script but the final film cuts his part down so much that Thompson barely registers.
Verhoeven's obsession with religious iconography especially comes to the surface in “Flesh + Blood.” The clue is right there in the title, as the word “and” has been replaced with a cross. The film seemingly criticizes the religious mania of the day. After digging up the statue of St. Martin, the mercenaries take any small detail as signs of divine intervention. When the statue's sword points in a certain direction, they follow it. Yet it's clear that there's no Godly hand directing their actions. The men are governed by chance, seeing heavenly intercession when there's only random happenstance. There's other weird, religious symbols floating around the film. Within the opening minutes, a nun has the top half of her head cleaved off. She lives but suffers from seizures, any stress driving her into a shaking state of religious awe.
The film's religious themes are in direct conflict with its scientific themes. Steven fancies himself a scholar. He dismisses superstition and the supernatural, such as when Agnes digs up what she thinks is a Mandrake root. When discovering several members of his party have been infected with the Bubonic Plague, he dismisses bloodletting as archaic. Instead, he suggests lancing the boils. Notably, a physician is dismissive of this at first, calling it “un-Christian science,” before later adopting the method. How technology marches forward is also a theme in the film. In the beginning, a rolling barrel of gun powder is presented as a new, advanced weapon. Later, Steven builds a large wooden tank. A long siege tower extends from the vehicle, which might seem ridiculous, even campy, if that actual technology didn't exist at the time.
a powerful, stirring score from Basil Poledouris, who was chosen to score the film specifically because of his iconic work on the “Conan the Barbarian” series. Verhoeven has referred to “Flesh + Blood” as the most difficult film shoot he's ever experienced. He nearly quit directing over it. Yet the filmmaker would learn from the mistakes of “Flesh + Blood,” continuing to story board his films and never kowtowing to pushy producers again. Even though the troubled production is sometimes evident in the finished picture, “Flesh + Blood” is a consistently interesting, if frequently troubling, motion picture. It's certainly a unique addition to the medieval action canon, an amoral adventure that only Paul Verhoeven would've dared to make. [Grade: B]