If this short introductory paragraph makes me sound like more of a pretentious, pompous asshole than I normally appear, then perhaps it is intentional and merited. This review has gone through many drafts, many in my head with a few on paper. While I was researching information on Flesh + Blood I found myself drawn to Paul Verhoeven by Rob van Scheers (translated by Aletta Stevens, Faber and Faber, London, Boston: 1997.) Van Scheers’s work is by far the best writing on Verhoeven to be found anywhere and it comes with my highest recommendation. However, as I was reading and collecting its data by making notes on the production history and collecting quotes from the film’s participants, I found myself making notes in the book’s margin, attacking Van Scheers’ criticism: Van Scheers is a critic firmly-rooted in the Marxist school of philosophy. Michel Foucault is a personal hero and I often find myself aligning myself with this school of thought. However, like any school of thought, this philosophy has serious limitations. One of the reasons why Foucault was so influential is because not only did he espouse philosophy, he continually questioned it. By recognizing a philosophy’s limitations, it actually liberates it. Van Scheers is a very strict adherent to his philosophy, and in my opinion, it hampers his criticism. Nonetheless, it is still very persuasive and fine writing, and I again urge all interested to seek it out. This will be the last that I mention of it. The end result of my research has fueled me to again attack film criticism, instead of write my own. As I’ve always been in the strict minority in my views on cinema, I believe that this flame within me will never go away. After two years of writing, I believe that Quiet Cool is just my attempt to affront the majority and enjoy myself while doing it. I surrender and openly admit this notion, now. I would like to thank Paul Verhoeven and Flesh + Blood for facilitating this admission and now back to me being pretentious and pompous asshole in a more focused direction.
Time to get medieval: the nobleman Arnolfini (Fernando Hilbeck) sits outside of his castle while his opponents hold the throne. Desperate, Arnolfini promises a rag-tag group of mercenaries, from whom Martin (Rutger Hauer) and Hawkwood (Jack Thompson) stand out, the opportunity to loot the kingdom’s wealthy inhabitants in exchange for putting Arnolfini back on the throne. The mercenaries heartily agree and are successful. When his power has been restored, Arnolfini reneges on his promise and he successfully persuades Hawkwood to exile his own companions from the castle. The rag-tag group leaves under duress with no loot and no hope. They band around Martin as leader and plot revenge against Arnolfini. Arnolfini’s son, Steven (Tom Burlinson) is promised a young bride, Agnes (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who is arriving forthwith to the castle. Martin and his motley crew of bandits intercept Agnes’s caravan and kidnap her. Martin’s crew also seriously injures Arnolfini in the raid. Steven becomes incensed at both his father’s injury and Agnes’ kidnapping, so he recruits Hawkwood to help him track down Martin and get revenge.
Let’s do the nasty, first. “We all have the strange idea that the Middle Ages were romantic, but that is nonsense,” says Verhoeven (apparently in his pitch to American production company, Orion). “This is due to heroic stories such as King Arthur, but that is literature, a feigned reality. Flesh + Blood is going to be a counter-fairytale.” (166) Rock on. What does a counter-fairytale look like? Here is a possible representative scene:
During the initial siege of the film, Hawkwood enters a bedroom chamber with his longsword in his hand. He notices that someone is hiding behind a curtain and he strikes the person with his sword. The victim falls out of the curtain and she is revealed to be a young chambermaid. Hawkwood has pierced her skull and caused a massive injury. He summons the doctor and begs the doctor to save her. She is removed to a bed for treatment. In order to treat her head injury, the young chambermaid is stripped completely nude. “What a pretty little thing,” muses Arnolfini in an absolutely lecherous tone. (Hilbeck gives a fantastic performance.) The doctor is able to treat her injury, and the young chambermaid survives. Unfortunately, she will be simple-minded when she completely heals. Arnolfini sees the young chambermaid as his inducement for getting Hawkwood to help him remove the mercenaries: the nobleman gives Hawkwood the deed to a remote property in the kingdom, where Hawkwood can begin a peaceful farming life. More importantly, the young and attractive and now simple-minded chambermaid may accompany Hawkwood to his remote location. Wink, wink.
However, while watching Flesh + Blood one questions how much “counter” and how much “fairytale” Verhoeven actually displays. For all of the film’s nastiness and brutality (of which there is quite a bit), there is a tremendous amount of romanticism and heart within. When Jennifer Jason Leigh appears as Agnes in the film, she becomes the main character. Leigh is indisputably one of the best actresses of her generation. She chooses diverse roles which are always interesting and her performances are frequently amazing. I always admire her bravery and her vulnerability with every role. Orion, the American production company who co-financed Flesh + Blood, wanted either Nastassja Kinski or Rebecca de Mornay for the role. (168) Verhoeven wanted Leigh after seeing her impressive performance in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. (168) Verhoeven won his casting decision when de Mornay made her acceptance of the role conditional on the acceptance of her then boyfriend, Tom Cruise, being cast as Steven. (168) Leigh not only brings the heart into Flesh + Blood but she imbues the film with its humanity. Although it is never stated in the film how old Agnes is, it is safe to presume that she is a teenager (the film is completely explicit in noting that she is a virgin and was raised in a convent). Like any teenager, she has a burgeoning sexuality and is in the formative years of her identity. Questions about sex and love are completely natural, and Verhoeven doesn’t hide these sentiments: in his lengthy exposition sequence of Agnes’s character, he devotes his screen time to Agnes and her maid. Agnes’s questions are about sex and love, as she knows nothing of them. (In a humorous yet kind of creepy but sweet sequence, Agnes commands her maid to fuck one of the attractive caravaners in the bushes, so Agnes can watch.) In one of the film’s oddest sequences, which is the complete rendition of a “counter-fairytale,” Steven and Agnes have a sweet and flirtatious encounter. It’s their first meeting and both are talking about love. The setting, however, dominates the would-be tender moment: under a tree where two rotting corpses are hanging, Agnes kneels in the shade. They have an endearing conversation about love potions, yet neither appears rattled by either the appearance or presumably offensive odor the two corpses are emitting. I suppose that Verhoeven is saying that death and putrid flesh is common during this period, and people adapted quickly to its commonality. By attempting to create some emotional intimacy between Steven and Agnes, I further suppose that Verhoeven is saying that the culture has not lost its humanity despite this attitude towards death and the like. The sequence is too visceral to really convey that sentiment, like most of Flesh + Blood.
Agnes learns about love with Steven and with Martin. Steven is young and soft, smart and sensitive, and kind and caring. Burlinson is also very handsome. Martin is older, experienced, impulsive, passionate, and extremely virile. I have to admit Rutger Hauer is damn sexy in Flesh + Blood. He has a gorgeous body and has never looked more handsome. As the story of the film unfolds, with whatever traditional narrative it possesses, Steven and Martin are pitted against each other. Neither appears as completely as a hero or as a villain, but they are clearly depicted as opponents. Are they fighting for Agnes’s affection and love? It’s unknown. At times, Steven appears wholly driven by a desire for revenge for Martin’s actions against his father. Martin’s character oscillates with his intentions. In a dinner sequence, after Martin and crew raid and pillage the home of a noble family, Martin sits at the table devouring his food with his hands. He stares across the table at Agnes who is using her knife and fork to eat, and Martin is enamored with the elegance of Agnes’s technique. He becomes more enamored when she begins to discreetly flirt with him: she rubs his crotch with her foot under the table. Hauer’s reaction to Agnes’ action is precious: one can easily tell by the expression on Hauer’s face that he finds Agnes’ affection completely sexy. Martin’s having different feelings, as Agnes is a woman to whom he is unaccustomed. The woman who comprise his crew, like tragic Celine (portrayed by Susan Tyrrell in an affecting performance), are like Martin: unrefined, impulsive, and overt. Does Martin fall in love with Agnes or the idea of Agnes? It’s unknown. There is ample evidence to support either view. I do believe that Agnes falls in love with both men (the final sequence of the film confirms it for me). As there is a lot of conflicting emotions within Flesh + Blood, there is also a lot ambiguity and uncertain answers. Is this uncertainty about the characters’ emotions a commentary on humanity? Is it a representation of humanity? I don’t know. The emotions might be conflicting and might be complex but they are definitely realized and true emotions.
Any viewer is truly going to labor through Flesh + Blood to find the heartfelt sentiments, however. Agnes’s rape scene is brutal. Later in the film, Hawkwood executes a brilliant and effective attack upon Martin and his company. It is also completely unorthodox and its rendition is vomit-inducing. In arguably the film’s most affecting scene, after Martin and his crew raid the noble family’s home and begin to pillage, the nursemaid of the family takes the young daughter in her arms. During the chaos of the raid, only Agnes notices the maid and the child running away. Agnes gives chase only to witness the maid jump off of the top of one of the castle’s towers. The maid’s intention was to kill herself and the child. It’s obvious that the maid feared for the child’s fate which she believed would be worse than death. Verhoeven had previously shown the depravity and violence that the bandits were capable of. Flesh + Blood has no real heroes, no real romance, and no clear answers. The film appears raw and unformed, and there is no tonal nor thematic consistency.
Subsequently, Flesh + Blood makes it appear as if Verhoeven has no idea what is he doing or he is a complete genius. I can say, however, with certainty that I absolutely love this type of cinema: arthouse aesthetics and ideas combined with sensational sequences. Flesh + Blood is at times completely offensive and at other times, it is genuinely heartfelt and real. There is some aspect within which appeals to every critic and viewer, but its end result is an appeal really to no audience. However Flesh + Blood is approached, it is undeniably compelling. So, of course, Verhoeven will always get love here.
All parenthetical numbers following sentences are references to facts and quotes taken from van Scheers’s book on Verhoeven as noted above.