There's a beautiful sequence towards the end of the movie Brotherhood of the Wolf, which arrived at select U.S. theaters on Friday, January 11, 2002. Earlier in the film, we have seen several young women flee from a mysterious beast, only to be successfully pursued and violently murdered. This time, however, it is one of the film's villains who is on the run, chased by a pack of wolves, who also successfully bring him down. There's lovely, deliberate parallels between the scenes, which gave me hope that someday, perhaps, someone will make a serial killer movie about a monster that preys on pretty boys. But that's neither here nor there.
I saw a free advance screening of Brotherhood of the Wolf (Le Pacte des Loups in France, where the film was made and originally released) courtesy of the Newport Beach Film Festival at 8:00 PM on January 8, 2002 at Edwards Island Cinemas, Fashion Island. It was quite enjoyable, even if I spent maybe one-quarter to one-third of the movie cowering in my seat with my eyes closed and my hands over my ears (I'm a violence and especially a gore wuss.) The movie is based on actual historical events that took place in France, in the province of Gévaudan, during the reign of Louis XV, between 1764 and 1767. During this time some 100 people, mostly women and children, fell victim to a mysterious killer, called The Beast of Gévaudan. The Beast was said to resemble a giant wolf, a dragon, and was rumored to be an instrument of evil, if not an incarnation of the Devil Himself.
With one notable exception, all the characters in Brotherhood of the Wolf are based on actual people who lived during this time. Our hero is Le Chevalier Gregoire de Fronsac (that's Sir Gregoire in the subtitles, which barring a few embarrassing typos are pretty right-on), a naturalist, libertine, and veteran of the French and Indian War played by Samuel le Bihan. He and his companion, a mysterious foreigner named Mani (Mark Decascos), are summoned to come to Gévaudan by the request of Thomas D'Apcher (Jérémie Rénier), a young marquis who wants Fronsac to investigate the Beast. Along the way we meet a number of other French nobles, including the lovely Marianne de Morangias (our hero's love interest, played by Emilie Deguenne) and her sinister (in every sense of the word) brother, Jean-Francois (Vincent Cassel), who lost his right arm to gangrene hunting lions in Africa. There are also quite a few priests, since the Beast is widely believed to be of supernatural origin, and (leave it to the French to provide nudity to balance graphic violence) a whole mansion full of courtesans, including the mysterious Sylvia, played by Monica Belluci, who was the title character in Malena and the only actor I'd heard of in the film's cast.
The film opens on a classic French Revolution scene: peasants with torches and pitchforks besieging a noble's house. Before going to the guillotine, the aristocrat tells us the story of the Beast in a long flashback, sort of as a parable of the all-too-human evils that led up to the revolt and his execution. In fact, the film's title comes from the name of a secret society whose fate is tied to that of the Beast.
Although all the actors in historical roles give solid performances (Bihan makes an engaging protagonist, but his sidekick steals plenty of scenes), my favorite character in Brotherhood of the Wolf is the fictional one. As the Mohawk Iroquois Shaman Mani, Mark Decascos lends a quiet dignity to what is unfortunately written as a pretty stereotypical noble savage, albeit with Native American super powers and mad kung fu skills. The script feels a little forced when he and his "brother" Fronsac confront the French nobles' racism and religious bigotry: "Have you baptized him?" asks one, after Sir Gregoire asserts that he and Mani are the same species. "He hasn't asked," our hero replies. A bit of realism returns a bit later, when we learn that Mani is the sole survivor of his tribe, killed by the French settlers' gifts of smallpox-infested blankets. Plus he and his tattoos are easy on the eyes, to put it mildly.
In the end, of course, good triumphs over evil, but not without some serious casualties along the way, and no fewer than two characters who come back from various states of death (this was probably my least favorite part of the film). I give Brotherhood of the Wolf one enthusiastic thumb up, with the other hand doing its best to protect me from the scary bits.
Brotherhood of the Wolf (Le Pacte des Loups) is rated R for for strong violence and gore and sexuality/nudity. It was directed by Christophe Gans (best known to American audiences as the director of Crying Freeman) from a screenplay he and Stéphane Cabel adapted from Cabel's original. It was produced by Samuel Hadida and Richard Grandpierre, featured special effects by the Jim Henson Creature Shop, and is being distributed in the United States by Universal Pictures, which is trying to market it as a French Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, though you can decide for yourself if the comparison is apt. I'd have more information but the film's English-language website is a Netscape-crasher, and there's only so much French I can read in really tiny font.
Sources:Brotherhood of the Wolf (Le Pacte des Loups), http://www.brotherhoodofthewolf.net, www.lepactedesloups.com