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Film Review: Le Pacte des Loups

Le Pacte des loups (2001; Directed by Christophe Gans)

Upon reflection, this movie is probably the Frenchest thing I’ve ever seen.

Known in the Anglophone cinematic world as Brotherhood of the Wolf, Christophe Gans’ stylish, bizarre, exciting genre mash-up is a glorious clusterfuck of an entertainment, featuring 18th Century aristocratic costumage and elegant period châteaux alongside slow-motion martial arts fight sequences and an absolute classic movie monster that is what badass wants to be when it grows up. Among its cast are Monica Bellucci as a courtesan who is also a spy for the Vatican and Mark Dacascos (the future Chairman of Iron Chef America) as a Native American ninja. It’s dark and weird and inconsistent and full of ideas both compelling and disturbing. Basically, it’s totally bonkers, and you should see it for yourself.

Plot? Sure, but no promises made about it making a lick of sense. Told in a flashback narrative frame by a French aristocrat about to be hauled to the guillotine by a revolutionary mob, the film’s main events take place in 1764. In the province of Gévaudan in southern France, a wolf-like beast is killing and mutilating locals (we see one such peasant girl chased to her death through vividly gothic fields and a soaking puddle pit in an early sequence). Grégoire de Fronsac (Samuel Le Bihan), skilled warrior, Seven Years’ War veteran, royal taxidermist, is sent to investigate by the King. He arrives with his aforementioned Native American ninja Mani (Dacascos) in tow, and the pair promptly whup some brigand-ish soldiers preying on an old man and his daughter. This scene, a stunner of a staff fight in richly-shot mud and rain, is an early testament to Gans’ vision and to the wonderful cinematography of Dan Laustsen. This movie may be frothy overwrought nonsense, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t beautiful.

Anyway, Fronsac and Mani become more and more deeply enmeshed in a convoluted web of secrets involving the beast, a semi-mystic secret cult devoted to it, and an aristocratic family which includes a fetching romantic interest (Émilie Dequenne) and her smug but sinister one-armed lion hunter brother (the exquisitely hyper-Gallic Vincent Cassel). There’s a plot to undermine royal authority and plenty of intrigue and killing and even some slo-mo exploding watermelons. Fronsac is asked to dress up an ordinary wolf killed in the region to convince the court that the threat is at an end, but the real monster is a steel-toothed behemoth that does not cease its reign of terror. Its big reveal sequence, in the midst of the splintering destruction of a country house, is a tremendous display of action-horror exhiliration that rivets you to your seat and your eyes to the blood-splattered screen.

Brotherhood of the Wolf becomes more complicated, bloody and downright silly as it goes on, frittering away some of the tension racked up so effectively in some of the earlier, borderline brilliant sequences I’ve mentioned. But the body count gets ridiculous and sensationalistic and there’s a thoroughly nasty and unprogressively-staged incestual sexual assault scene that does Gans no credit at all. There’s some undercurrents of science vs. religion, rationality vs. superstition in the Enlightenment context, but none of the intellectual or social-historical material is anything more substantial than window-dressing for the mayhem.

But lordy, what mayhem! When Gans has his cinematic mojo working, Brotherhood of the Wolf is superb stuff, even if it’s hard to overlook how goofy it is. The French seem to get this sort of pulpy mainstream mumbo-jumbo, though, and embrace it with an energetic fondness that American filmmakers and audiences can’t meet on its own terms in the same way. Head-scratching narrative details may fade, but the brazen, inspired images emblazoned onto the celluloid in this melting pot of generic bravado remain long after. A very particular delight, but one that genre fans might well find rewarding, if they take the time to seek it out.

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Categories: Film, Reviews
  1. May 10, 2014 at 4:47 am

    Terrific! Continue the good work. 😀

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