Bird or Beast

Pity the poor Ladyhawke (1985). Saddled with the most ’80s of scores, a wisecracking Matthew Broderick, and even a slow-motion “NOOOO!” at its climax, it initially comes off as chintzy and dated. But at heart, it’s an old-fashioned swashbuckling adventure coupled with a tragic romance, parceling out its plot’s mystical secrets between swordfights and thrilling escapes. Its pleasures may not be especially subtle or sophisticated, but they are elemental and manifold. (And, truth be told, the talkative Broderick is actually quite believable as a 13th century pickpocket.)

This impassioned throwback kicks off Season 3 of The Film Experience’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” series, a blogging tradition in which I’ve often proudly participated. Its challenge is to pick your “best shot” and, for me, the image above comes close. It showcases three of Ladyhawke’s strongest attributes: 1) the photography by Vittorio Storaro, as mythic as anything drawn by Frank Frazetta; 2) the mountainous Italian countryside that cradles the film; and 3) the film’s supernatural conceit—that Navarre (Rutger Hauer) and Isabeau (Michelle Pfeiffer) are cursed to be “always together, eternally apart,” he a wolf by night and she a hawk by day.

Thanks to this curse, Pfeiffer has relatively little corporeal screen time; more often than not, Isabeau is streaking across the sky or perching on Navarre’s arm. But it hardly matters because this is the breathless, sylphlike Michelle Pfeiffer. In the shot above, she’s sprawled out on a monastery floor, an arrow in her breast. Broderick’s Philippe has just asked her, “Are you flesh, or are you spirit?” She murmurs back, “I am sorrow.” She seems so detached from the physical realm, so consumed by her spiritual pain, that it’s easy to believe her. She is sorrow.

Hauer, meanwhile, is equally anguished but is instead tied to the earth, to revenge against the bishop who hexed them, and to what Hamlet would call his “too too solid flesh.” When Philippe spirits the wounded Isabeau to the monastery, he’s left alone at the site of his latest battle. Thunder rumbles in the distance as he kneels next to his treasured sword, leading to my favorite shot.

The shot only lasts for a few seconds, and he only utters a single word, “Please…”; this brevity gives it unexpected power. It gets right at the film’s raison d’etre, which is that “so close, and yet so far” relationship. The way Navarre loves and protects Isabeau, yet can never truly be with her. As he subordinates himself to the film’s medieval God, Hauer looks tiny against a hazy backdrop of field, mountain, and sky. It’s a stunning image of supplication in the name of love.

As any Blade Runner fan knows, Hauer enhanced potentially generic roles a mix of good looks, bravado, and intellect. Those are all in play during Ladyhawke, and Navarre is by turns intimidating, stubborn, and totally vulnerable. Whatever 1980s tics and poor judgments may mar the film, it’s still plenty fun and melodramatic, and it still has Hauer and Pfeiffer illuminated against Storaro’s centuries-old Italy.

4 Comments

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4 responses to “Bird or Beast

  1. I almost chose this very shot. It’s almost Bergmanesque, it has so much gravitas. and love Rutger Hauer in this movie so very much. He really did elevate genre films in the 80s.

    • “Bergmanesque” is a good descriptor: you could easily imagine Max von Sydow in Hauer’s place, especially since Ladyhawke is itself so concerned with the relationship between God and man.

      As for Hauer, I recently saw The Hitcher and was especially impressed by how intelligent and terrifying he could be at the same time. You actually believe that he could slaughter dozens of policemen and pin it on someone else. Talented guy.

  2. Of course your entry’s better and more eloquent than mine. :)

    I like the ‘Please….’ shot, only improved when Navarre’s horse and Philippe enter the frame the balance out the composition. I also keep thinking about Pfeiffer and how she rocks the short hair in a Medieval-set story. It’s not as asexual as Joan of Arc but gender bending in a subtle, 80’s way.

    • That’s totally true: Pfeiffer could fit in just about any era with only minor modification.

      And I liked your entry quite a bit, too; the film has a very striking opening (“Nothing is impossible!”) that deserves recognition.

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