Sunday, 13 February 2011

Paul Verhoeven Film Restrospective - Flesh+Blood

Flesh+Blood was Paul Verhoeven's 7th film, and his first fully in English. After the extreme critical mauling he received for Spetters, and some recommendation from Steven Spielberg, he tried his hand with Hollywood movie, even if it was set and filmed in Europe.

Reuniting for the 5th and final time with Rutger Hauer and also starring a young Jennifer Jason Leigh (Single White Female, The Hudsucker Proxy), Flesh+Blood tells the story of a small gang of mercenaries led by Hauer at the start of the 16th century who are betrayed by their king after helping him regain control of his castle. After they accidentally kidnap his fiancĂ©, the kings son tries to rescue her.

I have a very clear memory of the chat show host Michael Parkinson reviewing this movie on Film 85 while Barry Norman was taking a short break. The reason I remember it was down to Parky's absolute disgust in the film. After being horrified by the sad scene of the still born baby, he finally walked out after a young couple had sex underneath the rotting corpses of two hanging men. You can see why he didn't like it as there is a lot in this film that steers very close to extremely bad taste. If that scene with the two corpses didn't offend him, then the gang rape certainly would have.

After Keetje Tippel and Spetters, this is the third Verhoeven film to feature a rape scene, and this is the most brutal of the three. The big difference between those two films and this one is that neither of those films are meant as pure entertainment like this film is. However, the way she turns around the actions in that scene shows a lot about her character. Instead of letting the whole gang horrendously rape her, she becomes the sexually forceful one with their leader, knowing that he'd stop anyone else following him. It's an easy scene to misunderstand. Her pretending to enjoy it so that she can escape far worse can easily be misconstrued as women enjoy being raped. Even after this scene, there is ambiguity in the viewer as to whether she enjoys life with this gang after a lifetime in a nunnery, or whether she is just pretending while waiting to be rescued. After she becomes aware of circumstances that would kill their leader, Hauer, along with the rest of his gang, she still inadvertently stops him falling victim to it.

There are not many films set in the middle ages that don't turn out to have some sort of fantasy element to them. Other than The Name Of The Rose, this is the only other one I can think of. Even Ladyhawke, which also starred Rutger Hauer had him turning into a wolf at the end of the day. Although this film was set at the very end of the middle ages, during the start of the Early Modern period, it is still seen as a swords and sandals epic, a genre only recently revisited by Ridley Scott in Kingdom Of Heaven.

As is typical for Verhoeven, the film it littered with nudity throughout. Some of it pleasant in the form of Jennifer Jason Leigh's genuine blond virgin princess, to the unpleasant and shocking site of Bruno Kirby from When Harry Met Sally standing naked beside a fire. As is also typical for Verhoeven, the film is full of religious symbolism. After finding a statue of St Michael, Hauer's character, who was named after the saint, sees it as a sign from god that they should travel in the direction that his sword is pointing. This symbolism leads to one of the films most famous images, where a burning wheel behind Hauer's head appears to form a halo. It's an image that Verhoeven has used twice before, but here it forms part of the story.

Jennifer Jason Leigh is amazing in this movie, giving a performance that sometimes has you doubting where her loyalties lie, yet if you keep your eyes on her while others react to events, it becomes clear that she wishes to escape back into the arms of her husband to be, even if they have only known each other for 30 minutes. After this film, Leigh and Hauer would reunite for the excellent The Hitcher, one of the best Killer Hitchhiker movies ever made, and so much better than the Sean Bean remake. Coincidently, Verhoeven's next work would be an episode of the TV series, The Hitchhiker.

This is a film that needs to be rediscovered as a lot of people don't know about it. Although it was released in cinemas throughout most of the world, it only received a limited theatrical release in America and was instead shown on HBO. 

IMDB currently gives Flesh+Blood 6.7, which is a bit harsh but fully understandable. This isn't a film that people will love. It's more of a Like/Hate film. I liked it, but not nearly as much as some of his earlier stuff, and as Michael Parkinson himself thinks, there is a lot for people to hate about this movie.

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