Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Ladyhawke (1985)

At some point in time in medieval fantasy France. Notorious thief Gaston Phillippe (Matthew Broderick), generally called “the Mouse”, manages a lucky escape from prison. Marquet (Ken Hutchison), the man whose supposedly inescapable prison Gaston escaped from, and who clearly doesn’t take too well to the stress of pleasing his boss, the evil bishop of evil (John Wood), is so angered he and his man spend quite some time trying to hunt the thief down again.

Gaston is rescued from probable (he is very lucky, after all) doom by the knight Navarre (Rutger Hauer), former captain of the guard Marquet now captains. Navarre has an old grudge against Marquet and the Bishop, and has returned to finally put an end to their shared story. Navarre and his lover Isabeau (Michelle Pfeiffer) have been cursed, you see, and he has to spend his nights in the form of a black wolf, while she turns into a hawk by day, both doomed only ever to catch a short glimpse of each other as humans at dawn and at dusk.

At first involuntarily, but once he learns the whole story and meets Isabeau increasingly voluntarily, Gaston is drawn into the lovers’ story, and his help, and that of a monk (Leo McKern) with his own share of guilt for the curse, just might be what will keep it from turning into a tragedy.

Ladyhawke’s Richard Donner always has been one of these curious directors to me whose films as a whole never seem to cohere into a directorial personality. There does seem no philosophy, nor a shared approach beyond technical slickness visible in his films. That isn’t to say the films of Donner and directors like him can’t be worthwhile, because there is something to say for direction that steps behind the story it is telling, even though it does make it rather difficult to declare someone an auteur. At the very least, these films will be worthwhile when these stories are actually worth telling.

Ladyhawke’s story certainly is that. Actually, I find it difficult to avoid the word “perfect” to describe it, seeing as it seems to never take a wrong step in any direction it takes (let’s just pretend the main theme by Alan Parsons doesn’t exist), effortlessly mixing comedy, fantasy, and romance in just the right way. This is a film told from the perspective of what would usually be a mere comic relief character, after all, who never becomes annoying, and never is just a comic relief character even in the scenes when he’s bumbling. As a matter of fact, there’s a suggestion that things turn out well in the end (oh, come on, that’s not a spoiler) because Gaston’s metier isn’t tragedy, and he can therefore choose the part he wishes to take in a doomed romance and turn it right.

But really, this sort of consideration pales behind the way the film uses a pretty perfect – and pretty – cast, beautiful photography of extremely photogenic Italian locations, and a script that’s tighter than you’d expect to tell a romantic story in both meanings of the word, what could be seen as (and most probably is) the film’s slick sheen of commercialism turning into its own kind of poetry. That is an effect a more discrete director like Donner can probably achieve easier than somebody more pushy, for what’s more distracting from (a) romance than a director shouting “look at me! I’m an artist!” when in fact the audience really should look at the tale itself instead of the teller.

Ladyhawke as a whole projects a certain kind of conviction, as if the film itself would believe in its own story enough to produce a sense of wonder out of thin air (certainly the best place for senses of wonder to come from), taking what could have turned out trite and unpleasantly manipulative (the film is of course still manipulative, as all art is, but in a way I at least didn’t mind being manipulated), romantic.

Of course, one person’s poetry is another person’s insufferable kitsch, and one person’s romance is another person’s voluntary slavery but at least today, and with Ladyhawke, I’m one person, and not the other.


Pauline said...

Wow! Just wow! I always know you'll deliver a concise, well thought out review. But never in my life did I imagine that you would put up a review of one of my favorite guilty pleasures - Rutger Hauer! Michelle Pfeiffer! The Alan Parsons Project! Medieval fairy tale! Insanely good. You're my hero of the day, sir, and I honor you.

houseinrlyeh aka Denis said...

Thank you, Pauline! I'm glad this one finds your approval.
This was actually a teenage favourite of mine that turned out to hold up much better than I expected on rewatch.