Flesh + Blood
The wonder and the curse of Paul Verhoeven is that so many of his films are tough to appreciate, let alone enjoy, except by viewers who've spent time with the director's entire body of work. Although Verhoeven mostly makes violent, sexy genre pieces, his love of the punishing and the absurd can look ridiculous unless it's placed in the context of the far-reaching moralistic pessimism he's expressed in Dutch thrillers like The Fourth Man and Hollywood blockbusters like RoboCop and Starship Troopers. Aside from established fans, the only people likely to enjoy Verhoeven's 1985 English-language film debut Flesh + Bloodthe last of his theatrical features to reach DVDwill be those who like mud, misery, and grating barbaric laughter. Rutger Hauer plays an early-16th-century mercenary who leads a troupe of bandits and whores in a revolt against a lord who owes them money. Jennifer Jason Leigh is a virginal lady pledged to nobleman Tom Burlinson, but she's kidnapped by the rebels and becomes Hauer's mostly willing mate. Flesh + Blood contains a heavy religious component (Hauer fosters loyalty by insisting that he can spot signs from God), but since Verhoeven believes in God but not religion, he makes Christian ritual look as vulgar as possible: Hauer pounds down Eucharist like cocktail peanuts before heading off to pillage. Verhoeven emphasizes his characters' obsession with sex, their fear of plague, and their fascination with the clever inventions that facilitate war. The rebels aren't so much crude as emotionally stunted, and when they raid a castle, they behave like hormone-drunk teens having an unchaperoned house party. Though Flesh + Blood tells a terrific story, written by Verhoeven with his longtime collaborator Gerard Soeteman, the presentation is rough, and not just because the film is packed with gore and rape. Verhoeven doesn't believe in tasteful framing that implies nudity; he prefers the bare-assed variety, the kind that makes the body's frailty plain. The most vivid moments stem from such lack of restraint, as when Leigh talks romance with Burlinson while she searches beneath two rotting, hanged corpses for roots that reportedly grow from the semen of dead men. But the depiction of social chaos in Flesh + Blood extends to the film's noisy, busy, sometimes confusing style. It's enlightening to watch the DVD with Verhoeven's commentary track, which veers off into an eloquent discussion of medieval Christian history, a summary of the Biblical view of human sexuality, and an analysis of European filmmaking vs. American filmmaking. With Verhoeven serving as tour guide, Flesh + Blood more obviously fits into his persistent vision of a world of mass delusion where self-interest masquerades as good intentions, a hell on Earth where the poor die while the rich get paid.