Brotherhood of the Wolf (2001)

Christophe Gans’ Brotherhood of the Wolf (Le pacte des loups) is the sort of visual marvel that DVDs were made for. Kinetic and feisty, it charges ahead emotionally even when the action appears to take a breather. On a DVD, you can freeze and slow the action, to see in detail the cleverly choreographed fight and chase scenes, or even the magnificent landscapes and interiors. The film rewards rewatching.

Set in 1765 France and based on the historical legend of the Beast of Gévaudan, Brotherhood of the Wolf is a huge, ballsy spectacle, especially by French standards. As such, it’s a welcome rejoinder to the Amélie juggernaut — a movie with big, messy politics, lots of action and anger, and a wide-ranging disdain for the “French” clichés so gaily embraced by Jeunet’s film. For its anti-Amélie posture alone, Brotherhood is cause for celebration: vive les loups.

There are other reasons to appreciate Brotherhood of the Wolf (its slambanging fight choreography, Vincent Cassel’s disquieting turn as a villain), as well as reasons to complain (its conceptual laziness regarding gender and race stereotypes), but its most striking aspect is its crazy mishmash of generic and cultural fragments — French costume drama, monster movie mayhem, murky hallucinations, Hong-Kong action, kung-fu wirework, swords and flintlock rifles, busty whores and peasant girls looking after lambs. Not to mention lots of blood and heaving bosoms: the plot centers on the hunt for a horrible wolf-like monster that kills some 100 women and children (this part of the legend speaks to social and political circumstances, no doubt).

The film’s $29 million cost (meager by Hollywood standards) is everywhere on the screen, nothing wasted: in the vast landscapes, lush interiors, detailed costumes, elaborate animatronic and digital beasties (by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, but entirely uncuddly), and speedy, extremely mobile camerawork.

Along with its splashy surface, Brotherhood also cooks up a bit of class analysis, with the Beast signifying the brutality and decadence that brought on the French Revolution. Like the Hughes’ brothers’ From Hell, Brotherhood indicts the privileged folks in rather elaborate fashion. Not only are they selfish and clueless, they’re also generally dismissive of the poor, starving peasants who are the Beast’s primary targets. Apparently, this has to do with access and vulnerability — the farmers and herders are out in the open, easy prey.

It also has to do with a baleful plot involving the cultish and grand-robe-wearing “Brotherhood.” (Think: Eyes Wide Shut or The Ninth Gate, both having been there already, and recently.) In other words, the Beast makes the systemic abuses of the time literal, as well as sensational and legendary. Such abuses were, of course, already fairly literal and sensational, but the Beast ups that fantastic ante, being gigantic and alarmingly agile, with razor-sharp scales on its back and iron fangs.

As in most horror films, the details of the monster’s form don’t become visible until about ninety minutes in. And until then, you hear a lot about the Beast, in the form of survivors and witnesses’ testimonies, and recollection by the narrator, Thomas Age (Jacques Perrin). As the film begins in 1794, Thomas, an aristocrat, is on his way out the door to be guillotined, courtesy of the French Revolution. This metaphorical point (linking the Beast and the guillotine) isn’t quite so blunt-instrumental as it sounds, for Thomas is a “good” aristocrat (the real life figure on whom he’s based was apparently saved from death by his servants). More importantly here, Thomas — or rather, his younger self, played by Jérémie Rénier (La Promesse and Criminal Lovers, incredible and very different films; if nothing else, this young man is selecting his projects with an eye to longevity and adventure) — is one of the Beast’s well-intentioned hunters.

Thomas’s story begins spectacularly, as the Beast ravages a voluptuous woman out in the countryside, and though the Beast remains a sinister, Jaws-like shadow, the tearing flesh and breaking bones are plenty explicit. Enter the hero, a specialist dispatched by Louis XV to take care of this increasing blight on his reputation (it can’t look right to have your subjects splattered about the land). The dashing Fronsac (Samuel Le Bihan) is a “naturalist,” which means he’s sort of a philosopher, sort of a scientist, and equally skilled in weaponry, taxidermy, and affairs of the boudoir. Fronsac’s many talents make him an immediate target for the effete men who make up Gévaudan’s authorities and kibitzers, including the requisite sneaky priest (Jean-François Stévenin) and the one-armed, resentful young aristocrat Jean Francois (Cassel).

Fronsac conducts his investigation with the help of his loyal buddy, Mani (Hawaiian-born martial arts star Marc Dacascos). A mystical-minded Iroquois warrior whom Fronsac picked up during his adventures in the New World, Mani is something of a novelty in France, where everyone assumes he’s Fronsac’s valet. Their ignorance enhances Fronsac’s cool quotient, since he appreciates and even practices some of Mani’s hallucinogenic rituals. The men are clearly devoted to one another, but the film makes specific use of Mani. Not only is he the token Other of Color and Emblem of America (wild, innocent, confident), he’s also the smoothest ass-kicker in sight.

Just so, Mani must deal with the doubters. As in any Steven Seagal movie, the local overweening goons (here, cops or gypsies) challenge the foreigner, but Mani repeatedly outclasses them in technique and manner. With such obviously debauched opponents, Mani doesn’t have to do much to win your sympathy, but he goes through the “noble savage” routine anyway, communing with nature and running about nearly naked so as to show off his excellent tats. As a party trick, he intuits guests’ animal “totems.” His own is the wolf, which means that he’s less than pleased by a massive hunting expedition that results in a pile of wolf corpses — poor Mani looks so sad. This affinity for wolves aligns Mani with the Beast (a tricked-out, wolflike creature), as they are both victims of and outsiders to the European “civilized” culture.

Mani exhibits his own kind of civility, with his graceful (hard) body and long flowing hair highlighted in several running-through-the woods shots. Mani’s hyper-virility — so lean, so inscrutable, and so dark — eventually provides a model for Fronsac’s climactic battle with the Beast. But until then, Fronsac displays his potency in the more usual ways, shooting his gun and chasing skirts. When he’s not busy wooing Jean Francois’s sister Marianne (Emilie Dequenne), who is truly a vision in her smart red hunting outfit, astride her big steamy horse, he’s down at the brothel, letting the mysterious Madame Sylvia (Monica Bellucci) play with her knife all over him.

Yet, for all his hetero activity, Fronsac and Mani’s buddy bond is paramount, and young Thomas observes it keenly, eager to get a piece of the Beast-killing action. If Brotherhood doesn’t quite explore all the possibilities of this lively homosocial dynamic, suffice it to say that pursuing the Beast involves frequent penetrations and spurting fluids, for both partners. Fronsac, being the hero, is destined to be with Marianne, of course (though not until she suffers a very, very nasty episode herself). But the happily ever after part is not even shown on screen, as the film is obviously much more interested in the transformation Fronsac must undergo to fit into such a sanctioned relationship.

This transformation occurs during (and apparently as a result of) Fronsac’s encounter with the Beast, as this encounter enables him to see variously unpleasant sides of his culture, his science, and himself. The Beast represents the volatile combinations of sex and violence, religious dogma and emerging industrialism that will only become more emphatic in the near future, that is, the French Revolution. Brotherhood is loaded with galloping metaphors and generic clichés, but it does deliver great action and it does wrestle with ideas, some of them rather ugly.

The DVD allows you to re-see all of these moments. Though its extras are limited, what’s there is excellent, namely, Gans’ comments on “deleted scenes.” There include an opening scene wherein Mani and Fronsac battle a small horde of locals who emerge from the shadows (the woods) and assault them in the driving rain. As Gans describes it, he conceived the scene to set up a crucial theme for the film, the struggle between forces of light and forces of dark. Though he shot the entire scene, he says, and “believed strongly in” it, he decided to cut it because it seemed more medieval than 18th-century France, and more importantly, because it created character inconsistencies, that is, Fronsac is “contemplative,” a man of science, throughout the film, until Mani is killed, and then he takes up his partner’s weapons and fights for Mani. It’s lucky for DVD viewers that he did shoot it, for here you can see the scene in its entirety, as it was edited, as well as the shooting process itself, with fight moves staged, rain machines dousing all on the set (they spent a week on the scene, Gans recalls, shooting in the “freezing rain”), and crew members setting up shots.

Gans discusses four other scenes (including one in the bordello, that complicates the political context and romance between Fronsac and Madame Sylvia, in like manner, detailing how he conceived and executed shots, and then, how he imposed (on himself as well as on the film), a kind of discipline for the sake of art. The scenes in themselves are surely interesting to see, but to hear his thinking about them, as well as the film’s meticulous thematic, technical, and formal construction, is fascinating.