Directed by: Christophe Gans || Produced by: Richard Grandpierre, Samuel Hadida
Screenplay by: Christophe Gans, Stephane Cabel || Starring: Samuel Le Bihan, Vincent Cassel, Emilie Dequenne, Monica Bellucci, Jeremie Renier, Mark Dacascos, Jean Yanne, Jean-Francois Stevenin
Music by: Joseph LoDuca || Cinematography: Dan Laustsen || Edited by: David Wu, Sebastien Prangere, Xavier Loutreuil || Country: France || Language: French
Running Time: 138 minutes
Christophe Gans’ 2001 historical-fiction action film, Brotherhood of the Wolf (BotW), is one of the most bizarre and unique films I’ve seen in years. Though the film’s visuals, costume garb, set-design, and setting flesh out a rich historical vibe of French monarchy circa 1764 (about 30 years before the French Revolution), the narrative speaks of B-movie monster plot-devices and is built around pulpy, martial-arts-powered swashbuckling sequences straight out of a retro comic book-movie. The film maintains its artsy historical drama flavor (and to my American ears, cultured French language) while characters discuss the local events of a monstrous wolf, the “Beast of Gévaudan,” terrorizing the local countryside, and intermittently throwing down with cultist warriors and crude gypsy stereotypes. Wolves are hunted, muskets are fired, and stylized, slow-motion spinning back-kicks are thrown frequently and freely. It’s a crazy, violently absurd, if inconsistent, good time.
The basic premise of the film is akin to an Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)-style fictionalization of the actual Beast of Gévaudan legend, which involved alleged wolf-like animal attacks in the late 18th century. The movie’s narrative takes that real-life historical event and runs wild with it.
Our tale follows one French Knight Grégoire de Fronsac (Samuel le Bihan) and his Canadian Iroquois companion Mani (Mark Dacascos) as they return from a campaign in the New World to the French province of Gévaudan to hunt the notorious titular beast by orders of the king. As the duo study the landscape, the townspeople terrorized by the seemingly mythic beast, and get to know the mysterious nobility running the place, things take a turn for the weird; Fronsac and Mani soon realize that not all is as it seems.
Despite the film’s overindulgent length and poor pacing for its first half, the creepy mystery vibe from the story, premise, and cryptic characters holds your attention as our two heroes travel further down the rabbit hole. At times, the action sequences can seem poorly implemented and overly showy, but they also do a good deal to carry the film through its dialogue-heavy first half and always look damned cool. Once the film reaches its finale, the action sequences become more elaborate and the plot-twists deliver on the suspense teased earlier in the story. Perhaps the film’s greatest strength is its writer-director’s consistent, overarching vision that blends these disparate genres of horror, action, and period drama with considerable ease. One can fault elements of the movie’s special FX, but its core mystery and undeniable tone are pitch-perfect.
Speaking of those FX, the only disappointments with the film are its lackluster visual FX on the titular beast, which isn’t revealed on-screen until later in the movie. The buildup to this part of the story is disappointing given how poorly animated the CGI on the monster is, and especially given how so much of the plot revolves around the animal (the creepy cult aspect of the narrative doesn’t come into focus until the last forty five minutes). The monster looks like it should be on a Sy Fy channel original movie, which is in stark contrast to the authentic visuals and design of the rest of the film.
Other notable parts of the movie are a solid supporting cast including Italian mega-hottie Monica Bellucci (American viewers will recognize her from The Matrix sequels [both 2003]) as a cloak-and-daggers courtesan/Vatican spy and her real-life husband, frequent French phenom Vincent Cassel, as the main antagonist. Bellucci is used in a way that both her voluptuous looks and sexy personality are put to good use (her character reveal is one of the better twists of the story), and Cassell is as reliable as always. His character’s incestuous yearnings for his sister (Emile Dequenne) are established a little last-minute, but otherwise his bad guy-persona is cool.
If you’re looking to branch out into foreign films or European movies in particular, but don’t want to commit to the boring quiet and thematic density of artsy dramas, Brotherhood of the Wolf offers a perfect compromise. In many ways, it’s a pulpy historical action drama in French, not much different than Walt Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean (2003) or even 300 (2007), save for the scale of the premise and quality of the digital FX. The film isn’t that intelligent from a thematic standpoint, nor does it flesh out particularly fascinating characterizations beyond basic functional archetypes, but for its unique, non-conformative premise and execution, it’s an entertaining ride. If nothing else, it’s yet more proof that foreign films that reach North America neither have to be smart nor boring.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Brotherhood of the Wolf’s oddball setup, tone, and stylized genre-action work more than they don’t. Writer-director Christophe Gans should be commended for taking various genre flavors and niche subgenre tones and melding them into a workable whole. The action is especially satisfying. The main players, Bihan, Bellucci, and Cassel, are well drawn enough for the graphic novel-type story.
— However… the story moves too slowly for its first hour or so, not mustering a sense of urgency or consistent excitement. Dacasco’s Native American sidekick is mostly reduced to the exotic, communing-with-nature Nobel Savage stereotype. The narration and flash-forward sequences to the French Revolution are unnecessary. All of the CGI FX are terrible.
? Why did Cassell’s character pretend his arm was lopped off? Seriously, why?
I really enjoyed this movie – particularly the fighting scenes that included Mark Dacascos in a loin cloth…(ahem). Completely agree with your points though – the CGI was pretty poor and I also didn’t get why Emile Dequenne suddenly fell into a coma-like state at the end – it never showed Cassell beating/smothering her – was it his dodgy arm that shocked her so?
Thanks for the comment. Yeah it was definitely a unique movie, not the sort of thing I’m use to seeing Cassel in but I guess he’s a pretty prolific actor who’s been around for a while. Its nudity is definitely more gender-neutral than most — for those who love the manly men there’s Dacascos and his abs (Plus Biham’s kinda hunky…)and the lady-lovers get the always voluptuous Belluccci.
You’re right about the CGI, but at $29 million dollars for a movie of this genre, you won’t get much for your money. I guess a large chunk of that money went on the actors (Cassel, Le BIhan, Bellucci. Dequenne, Renier et al are all well known names). Christophe Gans said he set out to make a film that other French film makers wouldn’t attempt and he gained a lot of international acclaim as a result. But it’s flaws are, as you say, easily outweighed by the overall storytelling. I think the narrative and revolution elements are there to demonstrate how religious terror was replaced by political terror and how heroes become villains when the mood changes.
Those are certainly fair points, particularly that the main cast are big enough names that they probably required significant portions of the budget. Still, this is where suspenseful discretion in showing the beast or using more laborious (but generally cheaper) practical effects should’ve come in. If Gans had perhaps opted for showing less of the beast or having it do less bombastic gymnastics with non-digital means I think he would have had a more fearsome beast.
That’s a good explanation for the revolutionary scenes, though. I hadn’t thought about putting the religious terror themes in broader political context of the fast-approaching French Revolution.
Thanks for the read and the comments! 😀