Monday, May 23, 2011

Brotherhood of the Wolf - Too Good?

I come today to sing the praises of a movie I've long loved, "Brotherhood of the Wolf." I wanted to see it from the moment I heard of the reviews from overseas, and it didn't let me down.

Since this movie has probably been missed by many of my readers, I keep descriptions of plots and events limited. I'd feel a little cruel depriving you of a chance to discover all the joys of this movie for yourself.

In essence, "BotW" (original title: "Le Pacte Des Loups") is something I never expected: a foreign period piece mystery martial arts werewolf film, action and horror all rolled into a French 18th Century drama. That's not a joke, and "Brotherhood" is the best possible result of such an improbable description. RT even backs me up this time (72% fresh).

Do you like fairy tales? Well, try this one on for size - the Beast of Gévaudan. Over 300 years ago, in Gévaudan, France, over 200 people were killed or hurt by wild animals. This mountainous region was suddenly awash in attacks by fearsome (homicidal!) wolves. A mass of people (army, common hunters, noble gamesmen, etc.) stormed through the area, looking to stop the attacks.

When women have no rights, men wear makeup & dress like girls. Weird.
What does the movie do with this story? In the period just before the Revolution, an adventuring scientist (Samuel Le Bihan) with a Native American blood brother (Mark Dacascos) is asked by the government to hunt the beast that's terrorizing the countryside. The slaughtered locals have the populace thinking the Devil may be behind it; others suggest it's God's anger at the King...

Le flintlock. Trés cool.
Our lead, Grégoire De Fronsac, is a goodhearted, handsome, rugged Gallic genius. Imagine a lusty, clever Darwin trained in modern tv combat... He's drawn beautiful pictures of an Indian chief and American flowers during his field studies, yet he fought in the Colonies, and has a scar from a bear's claw. If a nobleman takes him to the local brothel, he'll have his fun, but he'd never need cash to get a woman...

This impossibly cool taxidermist - no, seriously, his position is "the royal taxidermist of Louis XV" - is a man of action and justice, yet he's also a student of nature. He's skeptical of God's existence, much less demons, and he wants to find out what's really going on. However, he's both aware of and resistant to the politics of his assignment.

So he sets off into the country with Mani, who people assume is his savage manservant. When De Fronsac first arrives, he sees a local accosted by government-hired thugs - he thrashes them in a way that would do the first "The Matrix" proud. Not long after, he's the new urbane delight for the local nobility. Some are well-mannered, earnest, or old-fashioned, while others are gentle and decent. Of course, they're also kinda weird.

It's almost unfair. Europe hadn't learned the double-kick back then...
See, one of the many genres of "BotW" is mystery, and that means everyone is a bit shifty. It's thematic, too, as we've just seen the awful behavior of conscripted soldiers who act with local authority. This picture is definitely of the mindset that nobody is really to be trusted. So, of course, weird vibes flow from the local big-wigs, another level of politics arriving with the de Morangias family and their two kids: Marianne and Jean-François.

Brother and sister, the pair are as different as can be. Vincent Cassel is J-F, the young "prince" of the local region. He's a sullen, angry drunkard who lost an arm hunting creatures in Africa. Marianne (Émilie Dequenne) is happy but strong, witty and honest. She's also a gorgeous red-head, and those wonderful 1700's hats make her look like a pretty little sailboat. I swear, just the sight of her makes me happy.

Just look at her! I want to go out on a schooner right now.
So now Grégoire has all the things that a man of adventure could want: a lovely women to win, a mystery to resolve, and a province to save, all through a rewarding task sent down from the king. Could this get any better?

Yes, please.
Yes. The troubled area has really come to a boiling point, and it has as many undercurrents as some kind of foreign "Blue Velvet." To welcome him, the noblemen take Grégoire to a brothel. There he's soon acquainted with their star attraction, an Italian bombshell played by Monica Belluci. Fortunately, the flick doesn't leave her with a role that just asks her to be T&A or a hostage.

Instead, she is one-part "mysterious insider," one part devilish temptress, and all parts beautiful. This lush female seems capable of anything, seems like a force of nature, really. One of the prettier shots in the whole picture uses exactly that idea - it gives her twisting, nude, perfect body the prettiest connection to nature. A simple transition from a love scene to a mountain top, and it's a graceful, respectful, contextually-appropriate use of nudity.

"Brotherhood of the Wolf" really is amazing. The visuals are more than good enough for a bigtime Hollywood blockbuster; the action scenes are all propulsive and exciting and fun; the characters can actually evoke opinions and responses from the audience. This picture excels at pretty much everything that it tries to do.

It shouldn't be a surprise these days when films show competence and effectiveness at their purpose - M. Night Shyamalan can't always claim that, and it's a pretty alien concept for Michael Bay. How could those French producers still achieve this in a movie that involves werewolves/beasts, a kung fu native american (played by a b-movie star (who nails his part)), and two period-piece romances? And who would believe that it could all work out so impossibly well?

1764 Bordeaux! I love- wait, wasn't that last year?
I'll put it this way: in 1994, Kenneth Branagh directed and starred in "Frankenstein." That film was obviously riding a recent popular return to classic horror (Coppola (who produced here) directed "Dracula" 2 years earlier...). Still, it had a solid director/actor for the lead, as well as Tom Hulce, Ian Holm, John Cleese, and even Robert DeNiro as the monster. Hell, Ken even cast pale hottie Helena Bonham Carter (who he'd just cheated on Emma Thomson for) to play Doc Frankenstein's girlfriend! And for all that, "Frankenstein" was an atrocious, self-indulgent, unenjoyable mess.

That's right, Branagh, I'm saying your ancient enemy, the French, completely humiliated you with an original story, one easily comparable to the unoriginal, turgid one you put on-screen. They smoked you, my friend. And to be honest, I kinda hope they do a Shakespeare story next, and produce something even better than your atrocious "Hamlet." Unless it's Catherine Breillat; she's just crazy.

There's also a great subtext here about the contrast between the modern world and the old world, between things that are new and those that are old. Mani is from an extinct tribe, a unique creature - just like the beast. Both are trying to survive, going by what they know and have been forced to do. The viewer knows what happened to the American Indians, eventually, and it raises the poignant spectre of the destruction of nature itself.

That element is also carried through visually, intellectually, and viscerally. There's: the (1) ever-fun mix of pistols and knives, of a time when old and new technology mixed so freely; (2) the presence of magic, rituals, potions, poisons, and a scientist that uses metal clamps and glass eyeballs to fake a taxidermy under official coercion; and (3) political upheaval.

It's an amazing aspect that could almost get lost in the grin-inducing action. The social result of these beast attacks is that people are questioning the godly-mandate over the king - a group of rebels have even published a book stating that the murders are a call for change. This isn't simply added for the purpose of cynicism or artificial conflict, though.

"Brotherhood," as the viewer knows, starts as a narrated flashback from a man whose tower is under siege. The film ends with the kindly nobleman walking off, most likely to face an unjust execution at the hands of the French Revolution itself. We know that he's a good man - but also exists as a symbol of the old order that France overthrew in the name of liberty, equality, and brotherhood. Also, the tyrannical reign of the domineering Napoleon.

Is this future knowledge of the viewer - Mani and the monster's fading from the world, the collapse of positive and negative institutions, the resigned sacrifice and domination suffered by so many people - is this all supposed to make us wince a little?

I won't claim that this is the deepest film ever, just that there is a thriving, thoughtful core that helps drive a film with great fights and constant sens-/sex-uality.

"BotW" has so few flaws to point out. While it certainly is thrilling and amps up the tension on the players, the mystery element is a little off, perhaps. This is the sort of movie where you don't really try to solve what's going on because you don't have enough information to even start guessing. After some time, things are made more clear, and the savvy audience-members can start to piece things together. I would just suggest you sit back and enjoy...

I should point it out again, especially for something with so much action and horror: Mark Decascos convinced me that he can act, and act well. Belluci is seductive and steamy and very smart in a part that gives her quite a bit to do.

And though you might hate the role played by Cassel - he's a fine actor but does a lot of whining here - he really dives into his critical role. Émilie Dequenne does a fine job with what she has, and looks so damnably adorable! Samuel Le Bihan, as the lead, is a brand-new face for me, yet he played his part with distinction.

Without the commitment of all these actors, even this sweet and freakishly-unusual story would not be able to hold up for long. Instead, it was one of the first DVDs I bought; I even knew I would buy it maybe half-way through renting that 2 & 1/2 hour running time.

Please see this movie. Watch it for the crazy premise, the fight scenes, and the chance to watch something that's not typical American fantasy fare. "BotW" is full of pleasant surprises, and the solid performances are equally pleasurable. "Brotherhood of the Wolf" is strongly recommended. So long as you've no problem with gore and violence, you'll probably love it. & please don't watch the trailer, which I'm including below in case you need more reasons...


  1. Interesting,
    I saw Crying Freeman of the same director and starring Mark Decascos, I didn't like it much but it was a fun enough B-movie.
    This one does look better and I'm tempted to see it for the cast alone, Cassel and Belluci are great. And Le Bihan is very underrated, I thought he was fantastic in Mesrine as well as in Captain Conan, which is and interesting film that I'd recommend.

    Great review, I've been on the fence with this one for ages but I think I'll see it now...

  2. I think, if you watch this, you'll see why I had problems with Cassel in Eastern Promises. He's good here, but it's a type of villain I can only take so much of. Both he and his wife play their parts to the hilt, and the ensemble helps make this work.
    It doesn't matter, this pic is a blast.
    Thanks so much, I'll check out mesrine and captain conan, as soon as I can get French language versions.


Chime in!