Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Flesh + Blood

Ugly, brutish and relentlessly bleak, Paul Verhoeven's Flesh + Blood is perhaps the director's idea of doing a realistic period picture, though of course with Verhoeven any concept of "realism" is entirely relative. The film is roughly made, with little concern for period detail or verisimilitude — in one shot, a soldier stabbed with a sword falls to the ground, the blade sticking out of his chest, and in the next shot he's clutching his bloodless chest, the sword gone altogether. The film is riddled with moments like this, evidence of a loose, casual approach to filmmaking. Verhoeven's realism is different: he's interested in including the details you don't normally see in period costume dramas. He wants to include all the grit, the ugliness, the grime and filth and rot. His actors are caked in dirt, and they perform with crass broadness; the performances are as messy and grandiose as everything else in this over-the-top film.

The film follows a group of 16th Century mercenary warriors led by Martin (Rutger Hauer). The mercenaries help the deposed lord Arnolfini (Fernando Hilbeck) regain control of his walled city, but once the job is done, Arnolfini has no more use for the looting, raucous mercenaries, and he has his warrior captain Hawkwood (Jack Thompson) drive the mercenaries away, disarmed and without pay. Martin won't tolerate this, so he leads his men back against Arnolfini, slaughtering the lord's guards and stealing his wagons, as well as kidnapping the virginal princess Agnes (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who was betrothed to marry Arnolfini's scientist son Steven (Tom Burlinson). Agnes is initially terrified, but in order to stay alive and relatively safe, she cozies up to Martin, seducing him and expressing her love for him, refusing to allow any of the other men in the mercenary gang near her.

The film is epic and nearly operatic in its melodramatic intensity, as Martin and his men careen across the medieval countryside, finally finding a castle which they clear of its inhabitants and take over. They settle in like lords of the manor, guided by the "signs" dictated to them by the half-mad priest Cardinal (Ronald Lacey), who believes they are being led by a statue of St. Martin, and that Martin is himself acting as an earthly incarnation of the saint. Of course, Martin helps nudge the statue into place to deliver the signs he wants the others to see, establishing himself as unequivocal leader and making sure he keeps Agnes for himself. The barbarians are on a parody of a holy quest, and once they take up residence in the castle, they also parody the manners of the elite they're displacing, spurred on by Agnes, who attempts to control Martin by showing him how to eat with a knife and a fork. There ensues a mad orgy in which the mercenaries attempt, clumsily and roughly, to mimic her courtly manners, shoveling massive pieces of meat into their mouths with their forks, chopping awkwardly at the food with dull knives.

The film makes every effort to separate these 16th Century barbarians from the present, to establish that this is a different time, a cruder and meaner time, a time guided by a different morality. None of these characters are likable, neither the mercenaries nor the soldiers, led by Steven and Hawkwood, who pursue them in order to rescue Agnes. If the mercenaries are brutish and violent and crude, Arnolfini's soldiers aren't much better. In fact, the film's opening attempts to align the audience's sympathies with the mercenaries, as they are betrayed by Arnolfini after loyally doing his bidding. Of course, the mercenaries are hardly sympathetic protagonists themselves, raping and pillaging their way through every city they come across. Even when Martin decides to surreptitiously help Agnes avoid the attentions of the other mercenaries, he does it not so much because he feels sorry for her, but because he seems to want to keep her for himself. He was won over into something like love when his attempt to rape her was met with feigned pleasure, the girl pumping her hips against him and urging him on the way she'd seen her maid do it in the bushes.

Throughout the film, Agnes remains an ambiguous figure. It's not at all clear if she's simply faking her devotion to Martin to keep herself safe, or if she's hedging her bets on which man will win out in the inevitable confrontation. She manages to secretly slip signs of her love to Steven to show him how she feels, but at the same time she aggressively pursues Martin, and it seems that at some point her charade slips into genuine feeling for the mercenary leader. She's an interesting character, seemingly another of the film's many sly critiques of religion. She was educated in a convent where, with access to the nuns' many books, she ironically learned more about the ways of the world than most other young, virginal girls could. She has, as Martin says at one point, an innocent face — he calls her an "angel" — but the rest of her is not so chaste. Even when she first meets Steven, she overcomes his initial reluctance to marry a girl he doesn't know with her bold, straightforward seduction. She wins his heart beneath the dangling corpses of two bloated, rotting hanged men, and at the climax of the scene Verhoeven switches to a wide shot of the kissing couple framed between the dangling bodies of the dead men. Ultimately, Agnes is only as innocent as she can be in an era like this, surrounded by death and brutality — she is unflappable and tough despite her exterior appearance, and she is willing to do what she must to survive and get what she wants.

The film is a typically excessive, sensually overwrought piece from Verhoeven, who has always brought his uniquely skewed sensibility to all manner of genre films. Here, he's made a lurid, bloody, outrageously sexual period piece, a film in which the barbarism and cruelty of these people is paraded around relentlessly. Verhoeven isn't concerned with making his characters likable, and he cheerfully revels in their amorality. Even Steven, the closest thing the film has to a genuine hero, becomes hard and cold after Agnes is kidnapped, viciously threatening Hawkwood in order to force him to help, and later purposefully infecting the mercenaries with the bubonic plague. The film's ending is thus a parody of the conventional "happy ending." The hero has rescued his bride-to-be and vanquished the villains, but it somehow doesn't seem like such a positive outcome. Steven's soldiers, taking over where the dead mercenaries left off, grab the mercenaries' surviving women to rape and sleep with them, while Hawkwood rides back to the half-mad former nun he keeps as his woman after nearly killing her in an earlier battle. The film isn't so much about a battle between heroes and villains, but a struggle between opposing sides of nearly equal amorality and ugliness; one can't root for any of them to win, and the film is unceasingly unpleasant and grim. This makes Flesh + Blood staggeringly ambiguous in its effect; all of this bloodshed and misery and hatred seems to have been over nothing, despite each side's conviction that God or justice were in their corner.


Mark said...

Good post -- this movie was pretty powerful to me as a teenager. It was like a cinematic car crash -- I felt a little guilty and embarrassed watching, bit I couldn't look away. I've always considered that Verhoeven's great gift.

Ed Howard said...

Good point, Mark. Verhoeven's films are always a little uncomfortable to watch, they very directly confront the viewer with lurid, wildly sensual images. Part of it is that he's usually working in familiar genres but goes so much further than what we've come to expect from those genres. We don't expect a historical epic to be so up-front about the filth and degradation of the era; we think of period pieces as being more polished than this.

bill r. said...

I just bought this, because it was five dollars (so was, by the way, the 2-dis, five-hour cut of 1900!!). I didn't like it when I saw it a couple of years ago, but it's not as though I thought it was boring. Just kind of...ridiculous.

I honestly feel like people give Verhoeven a pass for things they'd never let by from another filmmaker.

Ed Howard said...

Well, of course it's ridiculous. It's deliberately over-the-top and just wallows in the combination of sensuality and horror. As for letting Verhoeven get away with it, well, I honestly can't think of another filmmaker who even does this kind of stuff. Verhoeven's work sometimes gives me a similar feeling to the sensual and gory excesses of Cronenberg's early horror films, or the most lurid of Fassbinder's melodramas (In a Year of 13 Moons, Martha, etc.). What I like about films like this is the way they deal with the sensationalism of the imagery and narrative, a simultaneous fascination and repulsion for the things appearing onscreen.

In other news, I've had that 1900 disc for ages, similarly bought cheap, and still haven't gotten around to watching it.

bill r. said...

Ed, when I say people let things slide with Verhoeven, I mean the clumsiness, or the stuff that just doesn't work, but it gets a pass because Verhoeven is over the top, which seems to cover a lot of sins for some people.

Cronenberg can certainly be over the top, but it's always so organic, which I don't always feel is the case with Verhoeven. Also, with Cronenberg, there is a very fierce intelligence, and a willingness to be mysterious, behind a lot of his stuff. I don't think Verhoeven has half the mind that Cronenberg does, and he's also far too interesting in making a point, with the result that the art suffers.

Ed Howard said...

You're right that in most ways Cronenberg and Verhoeven are very different. And few directors have the intelligence of Cronenberg, so I wouldn't really hold that against any other director by comparison.

Anyway, I don't necessarily think you're wrong about Verhoeven. He's very blunt, he always lays out his agenda in obvious ways, and his films occasionally (or often?) have rough spots and awkward moments. For me, the looseness of his filmmaking, the blatant disregard for anything like realism, is part of the appeal. He just leaps into his filmic worlds with such vigor and intensity that you either go with him all the way or not. It's a little hard to intellectualize this stuff, or to talk about why I like it -- I mean, Flesh+Blood is a sloppy, gory action epic at heart -- but Verhoeven's just always so enthusiastic, so passionate about the ideas and images of his films, that I almost always find his work really exciting. I can understand why others don't see it.

bill r. said...

Ed, I'm sorry if it seems like I'm coming after you. I don't mean to. I just don't the love so many people have for Verhoeven.

Ed Howard said...

Bill, no worries at all -- in fact, I'm glad you've come by to debate this. Disagreement and alternate perspectives are always welcome. I hope it doesn't seem like I'm being combative in response, I'm just laying out my own outlook on Verhoeven.