I mentioned Brotherhood of the Wolf in yesterday’s post, and then realized that apparently I never wrote about that movie, that I saw in 2001 in a movie theatre in Turin together with my brother. We went to the first show in the afternoon, packing chips and some lemonade, and we had a lot of fun. Twenty years on, a director’s cut has been published, and so I went and checked it out again.
So, let’s see what this is all about.
And for starters, a bit of history – between 1764 and 1767, in the province of Gévaudan (South-Central France) an animal later identified as a wolf, or a dog, or a wolf-dog hybrid, went on a rampage, attacking an estimate (based on a 1987 study) 210 people, killing 113 and injuring 49 more. Based on the documents, 98 of the victims were partly eaten. Envoys from the King of France killed a wolf in 1765, and the case was considered closed – but the killings actually kept happening for two more years. Many considered the Beast to be some kind of werewolf, and indeed some pointed out in the chronicles of the time that the killings stopped after the Beast was shot with silver bullets.
The movie is thus based on a true story, and gets most of its historical references right, and offers an alternative interpretation of the historical events.
According to The Brotherhood of the Wolf (Le Pacte des Loupes in the original), filmed in 2001 and directed by Christophe Gans, the authorities fed to the population a happy ending in 1765, but then things got weird.
Told in flashback by a witness of the events, an aristocrat waiting to be arrested and executed during the Revolution, the movie follows naturalist Grégoire de Fronsac (Samuel le Bihan), sent by the King of France to look into the case of the Beast. A rationalist that dismisses legends and superstition as implausible, Fronsac is a veteran of the British/French war in North America and travels with an Iroquis friend, Mani (Mark Dacaskos).
Fronsac meets the local gentry, takes part in a number of outings on the tracks of the Beast, and starts perceiving that something is amiss.
He also patronizes the local bordello, acquiring the services of Sylvia (Monica Bellucci), a high class Italian prostitute, while at the same time wooing the young, aristocratic Marianne de Morangias (Emilie Dequenne), whose family controls the province.
Things start getting weird when a girl, having survived an attack, reveals the Beast (that Fronsac has determined is endowed with iron teeth) is controlled by some kind of human figure – but at this point the authorities decide to go for the quick-and-easy solution of killing a common wolf, and present it with much pomp as the monster. Case closed, Fronsac is told to pack and go home.
But the attacks continue, and the naturalist and his Iroquis friend decide to go back and settle the score.
Lavishly produced and wonderfully photographed in some incredible locations in France, Brotherhood of the Wolf is a movie that happily mixes and subverts genres: it’s a historical costume drama but also a fantasy, a mystery following a scientific investigation but also a swashbuckling adventure, a romantic comedy and a martial arts film with some great set-pieces, a monster movie crossed with an espionage/conspiracy story, with a small but striking side of almost-erotica just to leave no stone unturned.
The director’s cut clocks at two and a half hours, and might look daunting, but once the pieces are on the chessboard, the story proceeds at a fairly good clip, with a very fast paced second part following a slower start. In the first part we are introduced to the vast aristocratic community of the Gévaudan, a mix of creeps and twits, corrupt and haughty – men and women that make perfectly clear why, thirty years on, there’s men with torches invoking the guillotine under the windows of the narrator. We start catching hints of something off, but is only after the halfway point that, Fronsac and Mani, professional hunters and martial artists, finally get to work, the action speeds up, and the body count starts mounting.
The cast is spectacular – Dacaskos is charismatic as a member of a different culture, in tune with the natural world and capable of extreme martial feats, and Le Bihan manages to portray Fronsac as both a fop, a scientist and a ruthless fighter fully capable of divesting himself of the thin veneer of civilization when needed (and Robert E. Howard fans will find themselves suddenly beyond the Black River).
Vincent Cassel, in the role of the twisted (physically and psychologically) Jean-François de Morangias is the creepiest of bad guys, and both Dequenne and Bellucci are gorgeous.
I was particularly impressed by Monica Bellucci – I still remember finding her acting below par when I saw the movie dubbed in Italian in 2001, but now I have heard her in the original French, and she’s fine. It’s the dubbing that somehow robs her of all life.
So, everything’s perfect?
Well, there is a certain overindulgence, on the part of the director, in going full slo-mo in many scenes. The movie is beautiful to look at, but the shot of water spray in slow motion gets old pretty fast.
But it’s a minor nitpicking – just as pointing out that the Beast (that the director shows us for the first time only halfway through the movie, and this is also a very good choice), created with a mix of CGI and puppetry (by the Jim Henson team) has not aged well.
But really, who cares?
The Director’s Cut restores about fifteen minutes of missing scenes, and makes the film whole, the 152 minutes go by effortlessly, and the mix of genres and tropes is likely to appeal to a wide audience – for all of its over-the-top action and man-eating monsters, the movie is still solidly grounded in historical facts (basically, only the characters of Mani and Sylvia are made-up) and provides us with a rational explanation at the end. A bit unlikely, but rational.
Lavishly produced, beautifully shot and strangely unusual in its mix of fact and fiction, this is one of the best adventure movies of its decade, and well worth watching.