Thursday, 28 February 2013

Ladyhawke (1985)

To the tune of the Trogdor the Burninator song:

ISABEAU!!!!!
ISABEAU!!!!!

ISABEAU WAS A LADY
SHE... SHE WAS A LADY HAWK
OR MAYBE SHE WAS JUST... A HAWK
BUT SHE WAS STILL ISABEAU!!!!!!
ISABEAU!!!!!!

No grass-roofed cottages are immolated in Ladyhawke (Richard Donner, 1985) but it's still a damn good time.

Yeah, yeah, hawk looks like a lady.
Phillipe "The Mouse" Gaston (Matthew Broderick) escapes from the dungeons of Aquila only to be kidnapped and forced into indentured semi-squiredom by knight errant Etienne Navarre (Rutger Hauer). Navarre requires Phillipe's assistance on his kamikaze quest to break into Aquila and confront its resident bishop (John Wood). Turns out said Bishop had the erstwhile hots for Navarre's wife Isabeau (Michelle Pfeiffer) and, when she spurned him, he made the de riguer deal with the devil. Now Isabeau is a hawk by day, and Navarre a wolf by night: eternally together, eternally apart. The curse can only be broken if the Bishop looks upon Isabeau and Navarre together, in their human forms: but since one or the other is always transmogrified, that's impossible. Right? Right?! (Spoiler: not impossible, but takes roughly the length of a feature-length film to accomplish).

Ladyhawke has all the ingredients of a fantasy classic, but it never quite gets cooking. It's all just swash swash buckle buckle, and the nuances of this story require a more subtle approach. Now and again, we get hints of the kind of melancholy poetry that would have elevated Ladyhawke out of the sword-and-sorcery slums -- an intriguingly bizarre love triangle, for instance, is hinted at when Philippe takes it upon himself to deliver fabricated "messages" from one lover to the other. It escalates when Isabeau, in her hawk form, chooses to perch on Phillipe's wrist instead of Navarre's. Soon Philippe has the human Isabeau alone in a stable for some quality rufty tufty (get your mind out of the gutter, it's a dance). But the romantic angle which powers the film is eventually abandoned for standard-issue knights in armor swinging blades at each other. Maybe the writers didn't want to deal with polyamorous bestiality (and who can blame them, really).

Similarly, treacherous plot holes litter the narrative -- how much human personality and memory remains in Navarre and Isabeau's animal forms is inconsistent at best, and most worryingly, the fount and limits of the Bishop's powers aren't really established. I mean, if the curse gets lifted, great, but what's to stop him from just casting it again?

Everytime I look at you I feel shot right through with a bolt of blue
So, yeah. A masterpiece it's decidedly not, but Ladyhawke has its charms. The casting is inspired. Rutger Hauer's still channeling Blade Runner's Roy Baty, and so he turns what could have been an insipid romantic lead into an unstable weirdo: even in moments of contemplation or profound tenderness, you always get the sense that Navarre's just seconds away from squeezing out someone's eyeballs. Matthew Broderick's in full-on Dark Ages Ferris Bueller mode (his running commentary is delivered upwards to God instead of outwards to the audience, but the tenor is the same). Michelle Pfeiffer's Isabeau is alabaster perfection, pretty on the inside and the outside, and Leo McKern gets a fun turn as drunken priest Father Imperius. The human/animal transformations have just the right amount of cheese. And the soundtrack is so Eighties. Like, super Eighties. Alan Parsons. For real. Some people think this ruins the movie, but I think it's a selling point. If I wanted verisimilitude, I'd read a history book. Now shut up and give me the synth.

I am not a hawk! I am a... human being!
SCENE STEALER: Was any woman ever as beautiful as Michelle Pfeiffer in Ladyhawke? Her face is just... flabbergasting. Like, holy shit. I don't usually like to respond to the hard work an actress puts into a role with "OH MY GOD SHE'S SO PRETTY" but... oh my god, she's so pretty. Like, you kind of have to see it to believe it.

What's with the hair, though? It's more soccer mom than damsel in distress. Part of the Bishop's curse, perhaps -- explained in a scene that ended up on the cutting room floor? Yeah, that must be it.

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