Brotherhood of the Wolf (France, 2001)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

In this country, French movies are mostly known for being artistic and airy (or, to put it less kindly, serious and stodgy). And, while many French directors would probably agree that this is their aim (being artistic and airy, not serious and stodgy), Christophe Gans has elected to defy the reputation of his country's film industry by producing a motion picture that owes more to American and Asian cinema than it does to the traditions of Godard, Truffaut, and Rohmer. Any and all attempts to take this movie seriously will have the average movie-goer convulsed with laughter. Brotherhood of the Wolf never pretends to be something that it isn't. Oh, there are costumes, to be sure, but that's just to facilitate the setting of the 18th century. Anyone who mistakes this for a costume drama is not aware of what kind of film they have ventured into.

So what is Brotherhood of the Wolf? It's a period-piece action/adventure movie with elements of the following genres thrown in for good measure: martial arts, horror, and mystery/intrigue. Plus, the events represented herein are based on an actual historical event, although, to paraphrase a popular saying, Gans never lets the facts get in the way of a good story. Most of what transpires here is pure fantasy and has little to do with the real "Beast of Gevaudan", which roamed the remote countryside in 1764 France, killing several dozen women and children. In fact, Brotherhood of the Wolf owes a greater debt to Jaws and werewolf movies than to the period-piece dramas that European studios have become expert at.

When the story opens, it is 1764, and Grégoire de Fronsac (Samuel Le Bihan) and his faithful Iroquois companion, Mani (Mark Dacascos), have arrived in Gevaudan to hunt down and kill the fearsome beast that has been terrorizing the district. Rumors about it abound, but the common belief is that it's a wolf-like demon. Fronsac, a man of science, disputes this. He believes that there is something more prosaic at work than the devil. Soon after arriving in Gevaudan, Fronsac meets the twisted Jean-François de Morangias (Vincent Cassel), a bitterly sardonic young man who has lost one arm, and his pretty sister, Marianne (Emilie Dequenne), who falls for Fronsac. Other figures to cross Fronsac's path are Thomas d'Apcher (Jérémie Rénier), a young nobleman who joins the newcomer's hunt; Sylvia (the divine Monica Bellucci, the belle from Malena), a courtesan with a secret mission; and a clergyman, Sardis (Jean-François Stévenin).

With the exception of a couple isolated fights, there's not much action during Brotherhood of the Wolf's first hour - most of what transpires is exposition or used to establish characters and relationships. Indeed, we only catch half-glimpses of the Beast throughout the movie's first half, with Gans taking a page from Steven Spielberg's book by showing less to build tension. Once the action starts, however, it rarely lets up. We are treated to one martial arts showdown after another, leaving one to wonder whether an ancestor of Jackie Chan's roamed 18th century France dispensing fighting lessons.

Brotherhood of the Wolf reminded me a little of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in intent, if not in specifics. Apparently, these similarities are what attracted the attention of Universal studios. Acknowledging the box office appeal of the 2000 feature, they bought the U.S. Distribution rights and have decided to release the film under their own label (rather than that of their art house arm, Univeral Focus). Today, it's a rare thing, indeed, for a subtitled movie to open in the United States under the auspices of a major Hollywood studio.

Gans' film has the look and feel of a high-end comic book (or, to purists, a "graphic novel"). The production is steeped in style, from the gorgeous widescreen cinematography to the slow motion bursts of action. We see individual droplets of water, mud, and blood cascade from their sources as battles erupt across the sodden, fog-enshrouded terrain. Interiors are riots of color and fabric, as if a decorator went wild in a frenzy of 18th century excess. And, while the martial arts scenes lack the ballet-like choreography and wire-enabled flights of fancy featured in Crouching Tiger, they are presented with a fluidity of motion and a degree of kinetic energy that standard fight sequences do not have. There are moments, such as when Mani holds off a hoard of cultists or when three men take on the Beast, made for "oohs" and "aahs".

Brotherhood of the Wolf isn't exactly a "guilty pleasure" - there is more artistry involved in the production than is immediately obvious - but its strongest appeal will be to those who don't mind movies that stray beyond the accepted boundaries of what we call "reality". The movie has something in it to appeal to just about everyone - religious politics, incestuous longing, a little gratuitous sex and nudity, savage fight scenes, a dollop of romance, and an impressive looking monster that is both more and less than it seems to be. In short, Brotherhood of the Wolf is daring in its approach and successful in its result - assuming the result is to provide pure entertainment to the viewer.

Brotherhood of the Wolf (France, 2001)

Run Time: 2:26
U.S. Release Date: 2002-01-11
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Nudity, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: English subtitled French
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2:35:1