Monday, May 1, 2017

Flesh + Blood (1985)

AKA The Rose and the Sword

While talking to Senses of Cinema in 1998, pioneering French New Wave director Jacques Rivette spoke in defense of Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls (1995) stating “It’s Verhoeven’s best American film and his most personal… It’s the American film that’s closest to his Dutch work. It has great sincerity, and the script is very honest, guileless… Like every Verhoeven film, it’s very unpleasant: it’s about surviving in a world populated by assholes, and that’s his philosophy.” Rivette was correct in the assessment that Showgirls bares the closest resemblance to Verhoeven’s Dutch films and the philosophy Rivette speaks of is present in virtually all of Verhoeven’s work. Even when he’s in a witty satirical mode ala RoboCop (1987) or Starship Troopers (1997), Verhoeven’s worldview doesn’t exactly appear to be on the sunny side with visions of the future filled with rampant crime and hyper militarism. A film like Hollow Man (2000) could also be seen as having a misanthropic streak despite the fact that Verhoeven feels it to be an impersonal work. Verhoeven’s first English language film, 1985’s Flesh + Blood is a fascinating entry in his filmograpgy. Dressed in medieval costume, the film is yet another example of Verhoeven’s unique take on the human condition, complete with many an exploitive element and while it doesn’t paint a very pretty picture, as always with Verhoeven there is an undeniable honesty amidst all the unflinching medieval brutality.

After a successful military campaign aiding nobleman Arnolfini reclaim a city from which he’d been booted, Martin (Rutger Hauer), the leader of a band of mercenaries, along with his crew of shady land pirates and wenches find themselves sold out when Arnolfini demands they return all the loot they were promised. Furious, Martin and the rest of his soldiers ambush a hunting caravan seriously wounding Arnolfini and making off with the contents of all the carriages including Agnes (Jennifer Jason Leigh), the bride-to-be of Arnolfini’s scholarly son Steven. Martin’s gang, along with Agnes soon overtake a castle a begin living like royalty, meanwhile Steven begins assembling an army and launches and attack on the castle in an attempt to avenge his father and rescue Agnes.

Despite the presence of castles and the plot devise of having a dashing young lad set out on a quest to save his beautiful maiden, those who go into Flesh + Blood expecting a happily ever after fairytale are in for a very rude awakening when confronted with Verhoeven’s particular brand of medieval butchery. With Flesh + Blood, Verhoeven dispenses with the whimsical fantasy elements prevalent in so many medieval tales preferring instead to present 1500’s Europe as a plague infested cesspool populated by cutthroats, backstabbers and rapists. Its no wonder the original posters for the film contained a caption claiming the film to be “A mirror of our time”. That’s not to say the film is without its share of exquisiteness, on the contrary. The settings and costumes are phenomenal, the battle scenes and sword play are expertly choreographed as well as a truly astonishing sequences involving the unveiling of an intricate war machine. Verhoeven also brilliantly blurs the line between good and bad early in the film which leads to one of the most interesting aspects of the film, that being the relationship that develops between Martin and Agnes which remains uncomfortably ambiguous right until the final frame of the film. Verhoeven also finds time to pepper the film with instances of odd humor thanks to the antics of Martin’s cohorts, namely the amazing Susan Tyrell as a drunken foul mouthed floozy as well as an exceptionally loony cardinal whom Verhoeven uses as a springboard for his none-to-subtle views on Christianity.      

Flesh + Blood marked the fifth and final collaboration between Verhoeven and Rutger Hauer with Hauer previously appearing in Turkish Delight (1973), Katie Tippel (1975), Soldier of Orange (1977) and Spetters (1980). Although the two were constant collaborators their working relationship was apparently tumultuous as times. In fact, actor Brion James who played one of Hauer’s fellow mercenaries in Flesh + Blood described their relationship as “love/hate” during an interview for the New York City cult cable access program Media Funhouse. James also went on to describe how rough the film shoot was and admitted to arguing with Verhoeven (whom he refereed to as a “smiling demon”) everyday. Among other things, James recalls the winter in Spain where the film was shot being the coldest in 30 years as well as fearing for his life as a result of doing his own stunts with no safety harness on top of a 200 foot castle. Still though, he claims the finished product was the greatest film ever made about the 15th century. Being his first English language film with an impressive international cast, Flesh + Blood no doubt was a catalyst in Verhoeven’s eventual move to America. Even with an already impressive body of work behind him, Flesh + Blood was yet another feather in the cap for Verhoeven and a perfect stepping stone to the game changing films that Verhoeven would soon helm.

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