It’s hard out there for a werewolf. Relegated to shadows, limited to a small pool of potential dates, unable to present his “true” self to the human population of the planet, the average lupine-inclined person apparently feels rather put upon. Indeed, in Katja Von Garnier’s Blood and Chocolate, the werewolves who live in present-day Bucharest are predominantly male and beautiful in a vacant sort of way, and believe they deserve better than late night clubbing among humans who don’t appreciate their superiority (in werewolf lore, they were once “revered, the best of men and the best of beast,” though it’s unclear who did the revering).
For the most part, humans remain unaware that werewolves exist. And when people do discover the beasts among them, they turn afraid and brutal: the first scene shows little Vivian spinning in the snow, her face upturned to the starry night sky. “When we are children,” she says mournfully in voiceover, “we believe the world is full of magic.” Until, of course, men with big guns come shoot up your parents and burn your house down. Then you turn resentful and guilt-ridden (her own playful run through the woods has led the men to her home).
Cut to some years later, and 19-year-old Vivian (Agnes Bruckner) is alive and well in Romania, where she’s been raised by her Aunt Astrid (Katja Riemann). Now working in a chocolate shop, Vivian cooks up sweet confections and yearns for another sort of company, apart from her mostly anonymous brethren, who focus their energies on stalking cute girls who spurn them at night clubs. (The film’s schizzy conceit and title are drawn from Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf, via Annette Curtis Klause’s novel.) As Astrid helpfully explains, the time has come (as it does every seven years), for pack leader Gabriel (Oliver Martinez) to select a new wife: Astrid is an erstwhile mate, and bitter that she was dumped for his current, never-speaking red-haired squeeze; yet she imagines this depressing fate for her niece as not only inevitable but also desirable. (Apparently, among werewolves as among humans, males treat females as property.)
Unhappy about the whole mating-with-ageless-Gabriel thing, Vivian also resists the sort of bloodlust in which her fellows indulge: each month, on the occasion of the full moon, they select a victim and let him loose in the woods, promising they’ll let him live if he crosses the river before they catch him. The fact that the hunters — all lithe, lovely, and runway-model-like in human form — change into fleet, shiny-coated wolves, flying through the air and transforming in pretty blasts of light (as opposed to the usual painful transformations shown in other werewolf movies) makes the lupe life look pretty charmed.
But, while Vivian loves the running through the moonlit forest part, she remains distressed about the bloody ripping of limbs, even if the victims are designated “deserving.” As Gabriel denounces one scruffy-faced, black-jacketed drug dealer about to become “meat,” he profits from “dirty needles” and selling drugs to children. Vivian embodies the generally split sensibility of the film, partly reviled and partly enchanted by the wolves (she jogs prettily and executes a couple of rudimentary Le Parkour moves in city streets).
Vivian is also rumored to be the subject of a prophecy, which makes her extra-valuable to Gabriel (who wants to hang onto his pack leader status) as well as potentially dangerous: she might be “the one” meant to lead her fangy community into a new sort of existence, deemed the “age of hope.” (The film never quite articulates this “hope,” whether it means lupes and humans will find a way to get along, or one population will reign over the other, or one — presumably humans — will be exterminated altogether.)
She’s helped along in this endeavor by her love interest, American graphic novelist Aiden (Hugh Dancy), in Bucharest to research the loup garoux and instantly smitten by Vivian, whom he calls “Wolf Girl,” owing to her unusual knowledge of the old world legends. He’s gifted with a dysfunctional family background as well; “My old man,” he says, “was an ex Army Ranger and an addict,” who apparently passed on all manner of fighting skills, because this skinny boy more than holds his own against Vivian’s vicious cousin Rafe (Bryan Dick): in an effort to discourage Aiden’s interest in her, Rafe announces, “Some girls’ll steal your heart. That bitch’ll eat it.” Grrr.
Contrary to this advice, Vivian and Aiden fall in love, indicated by a montage that has them scampering through fountains and holding hands, he smiling prettily and she wearing soft pink sweaters. Unlike its most obvious precursors (including Underworld, Blade, or even Buffy), Blood and Chocolate doesn’t dig too deeply into the Romeo and Juliet-ish theme of mortally opposed lovers. Aiden is startled to discover his girlfriend might eat him, of course, but she regards her “difference” from pure humans with a sort of grudging appreciation.
While it’s not easy to read Vivian’s face — she’s always sensual and slightly pouty, as well as, by turns, angry, aggressive, aggrieved, and accusatory. Vivian wants to remake herself (and by prophesied extension, “her people”) according to an ideal mix of beings, imagining cool and noble possibilities for her pack. The suggestion is made that her father, who took the family to America, hence her “American accent,” had a similar desire, to find new worldish, not to say expansionist, destiny, for his family, even if that didn’t quite work out.
The film’s awkward connections among nationality, gender, and race (“human” and “canine”) never quite cohere, but Vivian’s ability to embrace her dual nature marks her difference from her narrowly focused masculine associates. They invest in the privilege afforded them by their physical advantages. Vivian sees the world in a more holistic way, seeking compromise and even some measure of compatibility with humans. Call it the zen of werewolfness.