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DVD SAVANT

Brotherhood OF THE Wolf


Brotherhood of the Wolf
Universal
2001 / Color / 2:35 anamorphic enhanced / 144 min. / Le Pacte des loups / Street Date October 1, 2002 / $26.98
Starring Samuel Le Bihan, Vincent Cassel, Émilie Dequenne, Monica Bellucci, Jérémie Rénier, Mark Dacascos, Jean Yanne, Jean-Francois Stévenin, Jacques Perrin, Johan Leysen, Bernard Farcy, Edith Scob
Cinematography Dan Laustsen
Production Designer Guy-Claude Francois
Film Editor Xavier Loutreuil, Sébastien Prangère, David Wu
Original Music Joseph LoDuca
Written by Stéphane Cabel and Christophe Gans
Produced by Richard Grandpierre, Samuel Hadida
Directed by Christophe Gans

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Saying a picture is five shows rolled into one sounds like a compliment, but in the case of Brotherhood of the Wolf I'm not so sure. I liked three of the five. Having all of the digital bells and whistles we're used to seeing in brainless American blockbusters associated with a big-scale French film is fairly unusual. But if we Yanks can make oversized Action spectacles sans logic or characters, jamming in commercial content that doesn't really belong, why can't the French?

Brotherhood of the Wolf is an extraordinarily lavish and big-scale period adventure film that dazzles with its costumes and reconstruction of a romantic era. Its erotic subplots and courtly conspiracies are worthy of Les liasons dangereuses by way of Alexandre Dumas. It has interesting characters to burn, with almost everyone harboring a dark secret, and the hero has a good girl to woo and a bad one to _____, so everyone comes away happy.

Oh, did I forget to mention that Brotherhood of the Wolf is also a fully developed horror movie, with the best outright monster since Jaws' shark and Alien's insect? And that the film's action is packed with modern Chinese martial arts choreography ... in France of the mid 1700's?

Synopsis:

In the 18th century, the King's naturalist Grégoire de Fronsac (Samuel Le Bihan) and his American Indian, martial arts dervish sidekick Mani (Mark Dacascos) are summoned to investigate The Beast of Gevaudan, a monster said to be preying on helpless women and children. They find the countryside in a state of panic. Deputies are unable to trap the beast, which the locals liken unto a dragon possessed by the devil. Grégoire meets Jean-Francois de Morangias (Vincent Cassell), another adventurer who was crippled in Africa, and Jean-Francois' beautiful sister, Marianne (Émilie Dequenne). His guide is the dependable Thomas d'Apcher (Jérémie Rénier), but there's a muted hostilty from the landed gentry, especially over Grégoire's cosmopolitan habits, like pulling a prank with a rare stuffed fish.

It is soon evident that the situation is more complicated. Grégoire becomes enamored of a sophisticated prostitute named Sylvia (Monica Bellucci) who has an interest in the beast, and court intrigues demand that a victory over the monster be faked, so as to stifle dissent against the king. Ignoring orders to lay off, Grégoire and Mani return to Gevaudan, and with Thomas, set out once again to trap the evasive beast.

A smashing success in France, Brotherhood of the Wolf was released here in January of last year, to considerable buzz on fantasy film websites. But it didn't catch on, so to speak, probably less for a lack of thrills than the French subtitles, and the dense political storyline.

This beautifully-shot epic was a delight to watch on the big screen, simply for its originality. Perfumed heroes dote on their wardrobes and court dainty Gallic maidens, and then ride forth to duke it out with oversized monsters. Politically, it's a 17th-century Manchurian Candidate, with plots within plots. The King's solution to the panic and destabilization in Gevaudan - faking a successful killing of the beast and then supressing any negative news from the region, is brilliantly handled, (and makes me think of how Bush handles California). Nobody has clean hands. Grégoire is a willing accomplice in the deception, seduced by the promise of big money for an African expedition. Interestingly, (spoiler) the rather unlikely conspiracy in Gevaudan is an anti-royalist religious cult who want to use monsters to bring down kings across Europe - destabilizing governments much the way modern Terrorists do. The King's official military detachment is on hand for a useless show of force, and his 'agents extraordinaires' Grégoire and Mani are more than matched by a spy from the Vatican! The three political forces vying for power, are two established tyrannies and a bunch of fundamental reactionaries!

As a monster movie, Brotherhood of the Wolf isn't bad at all. The very Jaws-like buildup is well-done, and when it starts to show itself, we get a terrific entrance, with the monster discovered creeping down a village path in the background of a shot. The key to Brotherhood of the Wolf seems to be eclecticism, and the horror references pile up quickly. The head baddie is scarred madman with a problem similar to Lon Chaney in The Unknown; he wears a mask like The Phantom of the Opera and (spoiler) controls the creature like The Hound of the Baskervilles, or Bela Lugosi in The Devil Bat. Edith Scob of Eyes Without a Face makes an appearance, but only real aficionados will notice.

The monster itself is a good blend of Jim Henson Co. animatronics and passable digital animation; Savant insisted earlier that it couldn't be a lion, but after seeing the disc has to relent, as the beast's eye seen through its iron helmet could be feline, and the rest of the body definitely is too. Does it move in a catlike way? Not really, but it's weighted down considerably. So I guess the Beast of Gevaudan is an oversized, tail-less African lion, maybe a prehistoric survival. Almost all of the monster part of the story is fresh and impressive, and it was hard not to enjoy Brotherhood of the Wolf because of it.

The aspect of the film that throws Savant for a loop is the commercial nod to Hong Kong cinema that makes Native American Mani into the world's greatest kickboxer. The French ruffians he spars with would be more at home in a Road Warrior sequel. The dark, epileptic beauty and her father are interesting peripheral characters (unfortunately for Mani), but the film's several side trips into Hong Kong action cinema are a wild conceit that doesn't work except for what are still called 'undiscriminating audiences', the kind who wouldn't mind if Rob Roy were suddenly attacked by a band of samurai swordsmen. Thankfully, Mani's character is well-developed on the mystical side of things. Wrapping the show up with an escalating series of combat scenes, like a Jean-Claude Dam Foole movie, was a disappointment.

The Hong Kong action spills over into the general editing of the feature, which the director states was a style inherited from the Chinese editor of the fight scenes. The MTV freezes, step-frames, slowdowns, and fragmented speed-ups aren't immediately fatal, but they de-class what should be a very classy show. There's already so much of interest happening, these affectations only make the filmmakers seem insecure of their storytelling, as if fearing the audience will lose interest if something jarring isn't happening every ten seconds or so. This opinion applies to meaningless, disruptive MTV cutting most anywhere, and thus betrays this reviewers' bias. Other showoff visuals, such as Monica Bellucci's nude body dissolving into matching snow-capped hills, don't signal the director as any great cinematic genius, either.

There's so much of interest here, with attractive and interesting characters in clever plotting, that it's hard to dislike Brotherhood of the Wolf - like I said, 3/5ths of it can do no wrong by Savant. The director does have a hard time wrapping things up. The multiple climaxes and an unnecessary flashback structure went over the heads of a big part of the American audience, who can't be expected to realize that the French Revolution is going on. And the final endless shots of the sailing ship really seemed tacked-on.


Universal's DVD of Brotherhood of the Wolf is in 16:9, but the transfer is kind of a let-down. It doesn't have the detail or complexity of color that I remember from the screen (where I paid to see the film twice, a rarity for Savant). Blacks go reddish, as if the transfer element were already clogged with too much contrast. It still looks very good, but one doesn't go ga-ga over the sumptious sets and costumes as one should. Perhaps this transfer had to be made from an import dupe neg or something? Savant's used to seeing picture-perfect DVDs of new movies.

The extras include a glut of unused scenes, all introduced by director Gans. They can be interesting, but most are longer versions of existing fights or further complications on situations that the audience barely follows anyway. The U.S. theatrical marketing and the box text try to relate the film to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and quotes web goon Harry Knowles: "As cool as they come!" Right on, dude. Maybe if Grégoire was Chinese and Mani flew through the air like Peter Pan, the picture's success would have translated to America.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Brotherhood of the Wolf rates:
Movie: Very good
Video: Good
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: deleted scenes, bios, trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 30, 2002





DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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