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Brotherhood of the Wolf Print E-mail
Tuesday, 01 October 2002

Brotherhood Of The Wolf

Universal Home Video
MPAA rating: R
starring: Samuel Le Bihan, Vincent Cassel, Emilie Dequenne, Mark Dacascos, Monica Bellucci, Jeremie Renier, Jean Yanne
release year: 2001
film rating: Four stars
sound/picture: Four stars
reviewed by: Bill Warren

This surprisingly lavish film plays like an unusual cross-breeding of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," a Merchant-Ivory historical piece, and a Hammer horror movie. It goes on a bit too long -- the ending is particularly elongated -- but the heady, almost breezy, grouping of seemingly clashing styles works surprisingly well.

It's based on a real historical incident that occurred in 1764-1765 in the French region of Gevaudan. A strange beast, never truly identified, killed at least a hundred people, mostly from the lower classes, and then stopped as mysteriously as it began. Some have concluded it was a wolf, though wolves rarely attack people, especially lone wolves, but the movie tries a different idea -- and in fact, never really identifies the creature. However, just what it is can actually be figured out from some comments in the film.

The movie opens with a very "Jaws"-like scene as a peasant girl tries to flee down a rocky hillside, but is caught by the creature we don't see, and battered to death against a boulder then, evidently, devoured. Soon thereafter (all credits are at the end), an elderly man and his daughter, also from the lower classes, are beset by a gang. But two horsemen stop nearby, and one of them -- we learn soon that this is Mani (Mark Dacascos) -- defeats all of the thugs while armed only with a stout wooden rod.

He is traveling with the Chevalier Gregoire de Fronsac (Samuel Le Bihan), a well-traveled naturalist who has been dispatched by the king to deal with the Beast of Gevaudan. To his wry amusement, he soon realizes that the rigid class distinctions interfere with the hunt for the beast; all the upper crust want to get their hands in, even though it's those from the lower classes who are being killed by the Beast.

He's attracted to Marianne de Morangias (very beautiful Emilie Dequenne), from the upper classes herself, but who is later (rather unaccountably) dressed as a peasant, in a large but rude cabin attacked by the Beast. Gregoire is also attracted to Sylvia (Monica Bellucci), another beautiful woman, Italian this time, who is working as a prostitute but who clearly has something else in mind. (It turns out she's something like a hit woman for the Pope.)

The snootiest of the upper crust is Marianne's brother Jean-Francois (Vincent Cassel), who lost his right arm while in Africa. He's instantly insolent to Gregoire, dismissive of anyone in the classes below his, and, we learn later on, lustfully in love with his sister. Not a nice guy.

The story continues with more fights for Mani who seems to have spent a lot of time in Hong Kong, judging by his free use of martial arts, but then again, everyone in the movie, including filthy henchmen, seems adept at martial arts, including Gregoire and Jean-Francois.

The Beast is rarely seen, but the sequences in which it does appear are generally begun in a very subtle, almost understated way; we'll catch a glimpse of it over someone's shoulder, or hesitating momentarily outside a hut. It's a huge beast, much larger than a wolf, and looks even worse than it actually is because whoever is controlling it has outfitted it in something like wicker and metal armor, with steel teeth and big spines down its back. It's almost always done in fair but imaginatively-used CGI animation; it's never entirely convincing, but great fun to watch.

As is the movie itself. Director Christophe Gans uses many kind of camera and editing tricks, including switching from normal motion to slow motion in the middle of a shot, or editing between normal and slow motion. In almost the first shot, the camera cranes down to a window and moves through it, the glass rippling (in CGI) as the camera passes "through" it. He treats the extravagant Hong Kong-style fights, of which there are quite a few, with blithe confidence, as if this kind of fighting was common in the mid-18th century. (On the other hand, it's just about impossible to buy into the few sketches we see Gregoire do; they are very much in the style of the late 20th century.)

The wide-screen cinematography by Dan Laustsen is exceptionally good; he works closely with production designer Guy Claude Francois to create often painterly images; Gregoire and Marianne are seen on a balcony in a shot of almost classic design. Toward the end, Gregoire makes his way through a fantastic looking cave, all gray rocks, green grass and hovering fog. The interiors are often bathed in rich amber light, while the exteriors are all overcast, with rich greens and cool grays and blues The only time we see a sunny scene -- it is mostly set in winter time, after all -- is when Gregoire briefly returns to Paris late in the film.

The sound is particularly good. It's hard to know who to credit for this, as there are several sound mixers and editors listed, but whoever was in charge produced an almost amusing effect. For example, in the opening scene, the girl tumbles down that rocky hillside, and we hear every time her fragile body collides with stone. A night scene set some years later on sounds like every cricket in France was hanging around just out of the camera's view. Throughout the film, the sound is imaginative, witty and plentiful, with the surround speakers getting a lively workout, particularly in the fight scenes and the sequences of the Beast's attacks.

The cast also works well. Samuel Le Bihan is, unlike most of the other men in the film, a blond, which may been to link him to the new era of enlightenment, which was active in Paris at the time (and helped lead to the Revolution), but which is anathema to people in the countryside. He's light, graceful and very winning. Both Emilie Dequenne and Monica Bellucci are attractive in very different ways; the saucy, impish Dequenne is the kind of woman heroes marry, but Bellucci is the dark, sultry kind they're attracted to. Vincent Cassel has a great time as the villain of the piece, more adept than he seems at first.

The story is a bit rocky here and there; though the film is called "Brotherhood of the Wolf" we don't even learn there IS a Brotherhood of the Wolf until near the end of the film. Surely it would have been better to suggest this sinister group's efforts earlier in the film; we should have known there was some kind of conspiracy going on.

American Mark Dacascos doesn't have much to do as the Iroquois Mani but participate skillfully in various fights, and look very wise. But he's used well in the film, much more so than he has been in his American films.

The image on the DVD is rich and well-mastered, with no video artifacts at all. It's presented in both a letterboxed edition and a 16X9 anamorphic edition. You can choose between an English and a French soundtrack (and can add English, or other, subtitles). We recommend going with the French track with English subtitles; both have great 5.1 Surround sound, but it seems a bit sharper on the French track, and you won't be distracted by non-synched lip movements.

The DVD also includes some extras, such as some deleted scenes, production notes, the now-standard trailer and cast & crew biographies. The movie itself is good, but not outstanding; it's too long, and the script by Stephane Cabel is not well structured, although the dialog is often quite good. Although based on a true incident very famous in France, this is the first movie based on the Beast of Gevaudan; it stakes out new territory, and deftly claims it.

more details
sound format:
Dolby digital 5.1 surround
aspect ratio(s):
2.35 anamorphic
special features: Extras include deleted scenes, biographies and a trailer - A French film; original title: "Le Pacte des loups"
comments: email us here...
reference system
DVD player: Kenwood DV-403
receiver: Kenwood VR-407
main speakers: Paradigm Atom
center speaker: Paradigm CC-170
rear speakers: Paradigm ADP-70
subwoofer: Paradigm PDR-10
monitor: 36-inch Sony XBR

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