(1985) dir. Paul Verhoeven
Director Paul Verhoeven has interested me for a number of years, a strange, perverse filmmaker, whose films are filled with sex, violence, irony and social criticism. Though I’d been aware of him for a number of years, it was when he made Starship Troopers (1997), that I came to see him in a new light. Flesh+Blood was Verhoeven’s first American film, but he went on to great success with science fiction action films including RoboCop (1987) and Total Recall (1990) and also Basic Instinct (1992), which had him at the top of Hollywood’s director list, given the commercial success of his work. But it was the film that he followed up his success with Basic Instinct‘s screenwriter that would come to flatline his Hollywood name, 1995’s notorious and now uber-cult film Showgirls.
Verhoeven’s work, especially if you look at the films listed here, is full of sex and violence. I think what happened when Showgirls came out that it was so lambasted and criticized, not just for its ridiculous camp and bad acting, but for the misogyny that it showed, especially when paired with Basic Instinct. Verhoeven’s star dimmed considerably. And when I saw Starship Troopers, a return to the science fiction genre that had helped make his name, I read the film as a critique of Hollywood, featuring bland, pretty faces getting blown to bits, futher media critiques, and pessimism. The film was a critical flop at the time and yet, I think it has developed into one of many people’s perverse favorites.
Though Verhoeven went on to make Hollow Man (2000), he left Hollywood and returned to the Netherlands, from where he orginated.
I think he’s one of the more interesting figures in the 1980’s and 1990’s in American cinema, not one of the guys who gets talked about a lot, perhaps this leans heavily upon his Showgirls production. Who knows? He is interesting and is well-worth investing the time in re-visiting.
So, anyways, this brings me to how I queued up 1985’s Flesh+Blood. His first American film, set in the Middle Ages, an adventure film with gritty, dirty characters and an eternally questionable nobility. I’d never seen it. I’d only vaguely even remembered it. The film stars Rutger Hauer (a Germanic Paul Newman look-alike) and the young nubile Jennifer Jason Leigh (who spends a fair amount of screentime entirely nude). Hauer is a warrior, a hedonistic murderer, rapist, life-loving would-be saint. Leigh is a sexually precocious virginal bride-to-be of a nobleman. Hauer accidentally abducts Leigh when eking revenge upon the nobleman who cheated them from their pay, which leads to a very strange and disturbing rape scene.
Everything in the film is muddy and dirty, morals, religion, ideals. Tom Burlinson’s character Steven, the nobleman to whom Leigh is meant to be engaged is the only character who shows any untrampled idealism and humanity. It’s kind of confusing to try and make out exactly what Verhoeven is portraying here. The world is a dark, nasty place where happiness and pain are embedded together, sex and rape are only a half inch apart from one another, and loyalty is entirely based on survivalist need. It’s a kind of horrific portrayal of humanity, and the film does have some striking sequences. One of the most telling is when the still virginal Leigh sits with her husband-to-be under two hanging, rotting corpses and digs up a root shaped like a baby, from which they both eat, as an omen of love.
Maybe that image sums up the morbid humanity of the film. The ending is oddly open, with the heroic, noble Steven winding up with the deflowered and questionably loyal Leigh, with the escaping Hauer stalking toward the camera as it fades to mist. While there is resolution of sorts, there is no closure of the triangle. It’s left as muddy and infected as the sores on the bodies of the plague-ridden harlots.
One thing that is somewhat significant is a homosexual relationship between two of the gang of marauders, which is treated with dignity and respect. The only funny part of that is that one of the two is the late actor Bruno Kirby, whose voice is so nasally New York, it’s utterly absurd to have him speak in this film.
There are other absurdities, too. But as a whole, the film is interesting, but not necessarily “good”. Some of the acting is totally laughable, perhaps Verhoeven is slanted toward camp always. And the treatment of women, while not necessarily misogynist utterly, is certainly questionable. Except for Leigh, the women are all small-minded and filthy, bearing no dignity nor morality. And Leigh’s character is intelligent and survivalist, but ultimately self-serving. Where do her true loyalties lie?
Interesting, if you’re up for this sort of thing.