Friday, March 30, 2007

Flesh + Blood (Verhoeven, 1985)

The title may as well be a concise summary of the career of director Paul Verhoeven, as it tells us very little about the actual film. Known mostly in the United States as the director of such exercises in excess as Robocop, Basic Instinct and Showgirls, Dutchman Verhoeven here works for the first time in the English language. His cast is peppered with notable American actors like Jennifer Jason Leigh, Bruno Kirby and Brion James, as well as a rather notable Dutch holdover in Rutger Hauer. Somewhat comically, Verhoeven’s film is set in a location no more specific than “Western Europe” sometime during the Medieval Era, although ultimately intricacies of history and geography are of little consequence to the tale Verhoeven tells.

His primary characters are a lusty group of commoners who have been duped into participating in a dangerous siege by a nobleman who refuses to reward them for their efforts. They are the sorts who in these tales always seem to be laughing heartily, exposing a wretched set of teeth, while they clutch a large, half-eaten drumstick in one hand. They are the kind of people for which the term ‘ragtag’ was coined. Led by Hauer and a beat-up statue of St. Martin that they look to for timely omens, the group exacts their revenge by making off with the dowry intended for the nobleman’s son, and (unwittingly) the bride-to-be herself, played by Leigh. Soon, they take over a castle and set up a makeshift home, living the life of royalty.

Much of this is trademark Verhoeven schlock - heavy on the rapes and vulgarity, low on plausibility and insight. However, the film grows surprisingly more engrossing during its second half, largely due to the interplay between the extraordinary duo of Hauer and Leigh. Leigh in particular plays a character who, if not exactly complex, is certainly captivatingly conflicted. Hauer’s Martin quickly fends off his companions to make his abductee his concubine. Leigh’s Agnes goes along with his advances, initially - it seems - to spare herself from violent repercussions. However, as she receives a crash course in sexuality, her participation seems to grow more eager and unrestrained.

Having previously pledged herself to her groom-to-be in a pseudo-tender scene that takes place beneath two decaying corpses hanging from a tree branch, Agnes is forced to convince two different men that her love for them is real in the hopes that one of them will rescue her from the conflict. The question is: which one of them is the rescuer and which the villain? As the tide turns for either side, Agnes’ affections seem to drift back and forth. She maneuvers carefully to avoid being exposed as unfaithful, all the while dropping subtle hints to convince the other that her actions are being coerced. Truth be told, it is little more than a shallow game set against a generic medieval background, but for some reason – most likely the charisma and skill of Hauer and Leigh – the whole silly thing works.

The viewer is unlikely to be enlightened or moved; however, Flesh + Blood does offer Ladyhawke-era Rutger Hauer brandishing medieval weaponry, copious Jennifer Jason Leigh nudity and the sight of diseased dog meat being catapulted over castle walls. Every once in a while, depending on your mood, those just might be the ingredients for an ideal viewing experience.



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