UK Release Date: 6th August 2018
Runtime: 127 minutes
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Writer: Gerard Soeteman, Paul Verhoeven
Starring: Rutger Hauer, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tom Burlinson, Susan Tyrrell, Jack Thompson, Ronald Lacey, Fernando Hilbeck
Synopsis: An aristocratic young woman kidnapped by mercenaries must use their leader’s attraction in order to keep herself alive.
Paul Verhoeven was born to make people feel uncomfortable. His movies are often entertaining and even more often outrageous, but they’re never boring and they defy any attempt to cram them into a box. One of his more difficult and underseen movies is the 1985 medieval adventure Flesh + Blood, which is now arriving on UK Blu-ray courtesy of Eureka Video. It’s a rough, raw film that wallows in filth and, while it’s not exactly enjoyable, it is gripping and fascinating.
Rutger Hauer plays Martin, who becomes leader of a band of mercenaries in 16th century Europe when they discover a statue of his namesake Saint Martin and their religious expert (Ronald Lacey) declares Martin the second coming of that saint. They attack carriages belonging to their former employer and his son Steven (Tom Burlinson). In the process, they inadvertently kidnap Agnes (Jennifer Jason Leigh) – virginal daughter of an aristocrat and engaged to Steven. She is subjected to physical and sexual humiliation by the group, but soon manoeuvres herself into a position of power over Martin and his band of followers.
As he would go on to do in his recent drama Elle, Verhoeven plays with sexual politics throughout Flesh + Blood. It’s exceedingly uncomfortable to watch the scenes of sexual violence that occur early in the movie, but Leigh’s character weaponises her body in an attempt to win back her agency as the story progresses. It’s not clean-cut and it’s not at all pleasant, but it’s certainly an interesting take on the Middle Ages, complete with the palpable sense that plague and pestilence is always in the air. Verhoeven helms the movie’s second half with such a sense of mud and murk that I almost began to feel ill myself.
Hauer and Leigh are terrific in the central roles, with the former embodying the same sense of an unstoppable physical force that he did in Blade Runner just a few years prior. Leigh, though, is an absolute force of nature. She’s far more than just a terrified captive and exercises real power over the movie’s male characters, whether it’s Hauer or Tom Burlinson’s Steven, who is as full of book learning as he is lacking in the raw power and brutality of Hauer’s amoral mercenary. He plays the role of skeptic to the religious zealotry of the mercenaries, explaining that “when people aren’t sure, they make things up”, communicating the movie’s message of the dangers of blind faith.
But this is a movie for which the message is somewhat incidental. Flesh + Blood is partially about religion, but it’s more of a traditional, down and dirty medieval tale that is more than willing to plunge deep into the dirt and filth of the period. Verhoeven, as anyone familiar with his work will now, has little regard for taste and decency, but that’s what give this movie its edge after more than 30 years. It’s uneven and it’s uncomfortable, but it’s strangely gripping with it.
Quite a big selection of interviews and discussion of the film, including some quite candid stuff about the troubled production. It’s well worth a watch.
Pop or Poop?
It’s not the most polished work of Paul Verhoeven’s career, but Flesh + Blood works as a shot of raw nastiness that cuts to the bone with its grim edges. Every frame of the movie seems to exude the stench of plague and pestilence, with Jennifer Jason Leigh delivering a stellar performance as the ultimate aristocratic fish out of water.
It’s occasionally a rough watch, but there’s more than enough there to keep the action moving, even at its darkest moments.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.
Flesh + Blood is available on Blu-ray in the UK from Monday, courtesy of Eureka Video.