Editor’s Notes: The following review is part of our coverage for TIFF’s Flesh + Blood: The Films of Paul Verhoeven which runs from January 24th to April 4th at TIFF Bell Lightbox. For more information on upcoming TIFF film series visit http://tiff.net and follow TIFF on Twitter at @TIFF_NET.
Paul Verhoeven was once described as a one man Dutch film industry, a writer and director who cut his teeth in his homeland before making the successful transition to Hollywood and the mainstream. Early works were well received internationally on the award and festival circuits but it wasn’t until his first American film Flesh + Blood in 1985 that Verhoeven established himself as a filmmaker to be revered.
Early works were well received internationally on the award and festival circuits but it wasn’t until his first American film Flesh + Blood in 1985 that Verhoeven established himself as a filmmaker to be revered.
Set in 16th century plague-ridden Italy the film’s plot is fairly loose. Martin (Rutger Hauer) leads a motley band of mercenaries who find themselves betrayed by their King and on the run. They retaliate by kidnapping the King’s future daughter-in-law Agnes (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and after receiving what the group perceive as divine guidance, they set up home in a castle after forcibly evicting the current residents. Prince Steven (Tom Burlinson) is obviously wronged by the disappearance of his fiancée and pledges to rescue her, besieging the castle. As infighting threatens to divide Martin’s fugitives Agnes inevitably begins to develop feelings for her captor and the film settles into attrition as neither party will back down.
The medieval setting gives Verhoeven licence to indulge in the extremes of violence and sex that had begun to appear in his previous films. Determined to portray the Middle-Ages with a gritty realism he felt had been missing in similarly themed films Verhoeven included brutally gory battle scenes and regular sex and nudity that at times may detract a little from the tensions in character’s relationships which is at the heart of the film. There is possibly a feeling while watching that more could have been made of this but instead of focussing on these intricacies Verhoeven pulls the film down curious plot twists that are at times crass and uncomfortable. A protracted scene of abuse that culminates in attempted gang rape adds little other than to remove any sympathies an audience has with some of the characters. That said Flesh + Blood is nothing if not bold and aggressive, challenging anyone to argue with its honest sensibilities set in realistic depiction.
The medieval setting gives Verhoeven licence to indulge in the extremes of violence and sex that had begun to appear in his previous films.
The film also marked the fifth and final collaboration between Verhoeven and Hauer. Once felsh inseparable in their filmmaking they never worked together again after reports of a fractious and combative relationship on set. How much of this friction found its way into the film is unclear but perhaps the narrative of Hauer’s character Martin becoming increasingly alienated within his own group and ultimately finding himself isolated is telling.
From a performance point of view the cast do everything that is required with a script that can occasionally slip into stunted bawdiness, and that drifts a little towards Pythonesque parody. Hauer is easily the best exponent at delivering lines laced with potential comedic risk and it is to his credit that this never becomes too much of an issue. If there is a criticism of the direction it is that there is an episodic quality to much of the action with the pacing becoming disjointed at times as Verhoeven satisfies his penchant for as much naked flesh and bloody battling as possible.
When released in 1985 Flesh + Blood began a four film run for Verhoeven that in many ways defined the knowing excesses of the late 80’s and early 90’s. Followed respectively by Robocop, Total Recall and Basic Instinct the period was the highpoint of the Dutchman’s career and unquestionably emphasised the themes of sex and violence that his productions were built around, productions that gained huge popularity amongst fans and critical notoriety amongst cynics. Flesh + Blood is without doubt the lesser known and lesser seen member of this illustrious foursome but it is interesting and entertaining viewing in that it showcases it’s directors well visited tropes.
[notification type=”star”]65/100 ~ OKAY. Flesh + Blood is nothing if not bold and aggressive, challenging anyone to argue with its honest sensibilities set in realistic depiction.[/notification]