Brotherhood of the Wolf Review
Blending genres is a fine culinary skill. You have to know not only what ingredients go with what, but also the precise measures that they should be combined in; you even have to introduce them at just the right time, lest they get overcooked and spoil. Play it too straight, and then try and introduce humour, and you’ll likely mess up the dish; overwhelm with horror, and you’ll likely alienate those who appreciate the more playful moments; throw the action in too late and people may have switched off by then; overplay the action and you cut short the character development – it’s all about balance and timing, and some movies get it just right.
Of course, at the end of the day, it often comes down to taste: the recent film Hanna incorporated elements of revenge thriller, coming-of-age drama, road movie and action adventure, and was further embellished by an overt fairytale-esque imagery; and I loved it, and whilst not everybody will feel the same way, few will dispute the fact that you won’t have seen anything like it before. That said, it was neither the first successful multi-genre blend, nor the absolute best (although it came close). That title was won a decade ago.
Believe it or not – and those who prefer not to have to ‘read’ whilst watching their films will likely find it hard to stomach – the 2001 French film Brotherhood of the Wolf (Le Pacte Des Loups) is the best example of a successful multi-genre blend that I can think of. It told a period horror tale, with political manoeuvring, romance and subterfuge all thrown into the mix – along with a hefty dose of kinetic martial arts action and a smattering of sex. Hell, it even sported the thin veil of a supernatural fantasy flick. The result was stylishly shot, well-developed, cleverly-plotted, strongly-acted and basically kick-ass. Did I mention that it also happens to be one of my favourite movies of all time?
Honestly, the first time I saw this movie I knew next to nothing about it – the poster, cast list and general buzz were enough to draw me in – and I would strongly recommend that those daring enough out there should do exactly the same: although the rest of my review contains very little that could be deemed to be spoilers, it is very much tailored towards those who already know and appreciate this magnificent gem.
It is 18th Century France and a strange beast is roaming the lands, savagely slaughtering dozens of innocent people. With public outrage and panic setting in across the country, King Louis IV dispatches his finest soldier – also a renowned naturalist and taxidermist – to personally investigate the matter and capture this fabled beast, hoping to retain it for his collection. Gregoire de Fronsac and his companion, Mani, an Iroquios Native American, find a great deal more than they expected however; aside from the inherent bigotry amidst the pompous French aristocracy – determined to find a solution to present to the people, irrespective of whether the killings actually end – they discover clues to a grander scheme to things, and, with corruption rife amidst the circles they walk in, and fear driving the actions of the many, they find that they have nobody to trust but each other. And the beast? Well, whilst it may not quite be the supernatural being that the people are so afraid of, it’s also far from wholly natural as well. The question is: will they be able to stop it?
Loosely based on a series of killings that actually took place in mid-18th Century France, which were attributed to a strange wolf-like creature that was alleged to have terrorized the townsfolk of South-Central France for several years, and on the book L’Innocence des loups (The Innocence of the Wolves) written about these events, this cinematic production was co-written and directed by French filmmaker Christophe Gans. Gans is known to his fans for his work on Crying Freeman, a heavily stylised adaptation of a Japanese manga series, and for his adaptation of the popular Silent Hill video game series into a flawed film by the same name. Both give clear indications as to the stylistic flair that the Director has, whilst also betraying his unsurprising preference for style over substance. For Brotherhood of the Wolf, however, he got the mix just right – taking a story steeped in rich and dark French history, brimming with political intrigue and open-ended mystery, and integrating in exotic themes of horror, sex, martial arts and fantasy – all of which allowed him to put his imaginative style to good use.
After a foreboding introductory sequence, set in the midst of the French Revolution, we flashback as the narrating character reflects on his fateful experiences from the preceding decades. We are taken to this particular area of period France through the use of a speeding camera across the hills and dales, the Director heavily ramping the shot so as to almost evoke a sense of vertigo in the viewer as he zooms down the landscape; eventually we find ourselves face to face with one of the victims of The Beast – the creature himself impossible to make out, but his actions graphically evident for all to be shocked by. Through this scene, right from the outset, the director sets his film apart from any standard period drama, French or otherwise, establishing itself with the kind of opening you would expect from a horror film (c.f. Jaws). Instantly you know you’re going to be in for one hell of a ride.
Introducing our heroes – the soldier/naturalist De Fronsac and his brother-in-arms, Mani, again we are thrown an absolute curve-ball. They are seen riding in through the rain – the start of a sequence heavily evocative of its influences in the western genre – to happen upon a couple of peasants being beaten by a vicious gang. The travellers defend the poor peasants, as you might only expect, but the method by which they do so is arguably unique for a movie with this kind of period setting – Mani stepping from his horse to face the gang of at least half-a-dozen armed men wielding wooden pikes, and dispatching them with a furious display of stunning martial arts skills. Within the first few minutes Gans has given you a taste of what to come – and the elements he has shown you are almost impossible to pigeon-hole; impossible to categorize in any one genre; and arguably unlike anything you would have ever seen before.
De Fronsac himself is shown to be a man of science and logic, whose experiences travelling the globe have left him with a broader scope by which to view the horrific events that have beset this area – he agrees that these are not the actions of a normal wolf (rabid or otherwise), but does not believe for a second that the explanation is in the least bit supernaturally founded. As the story develops, and the investigations continue, everything only appears to be further enshrouded in mystery – not just the strange beast, but even the impossible-to-read women who De Fronsac becomes involved with: the first, the chaste daughter of an aristocrat, who he seeks to woo; the second, ostensibly just a high-class lady-of-the-night, although her true motivations and involvement in the underbelly of this society are a mystery in and of themselves.
During these sequence the director cleverly drops his over-stylised cinematography, and allows us to observe these characters as if this were just another period drama – playing it out almost like a French variation of Sherlock Holmes and the Hound of the Baskervilles, as we get to know the two ‘foreign’ investigators, and find out that what they are up against is not only the fabled Beast, but also the prejudices of the aristocratic society in which they walk. He allows his characters to have more depth than you might expect, too: De Fronsac portrayed with playful energy and charismatic self-assuredness by Samuel Le Bihan (Mesrine, Three Colours: Red), whilst his hosts are generally rounded out by the same universal pompousness that adorns most stereotyped aristocracy, excepting the Marquis (Jeremie Renier), whose youth and open-mindedness leaves him a welcome colleague to the investigators, and Jean-Francois de Morangias (Vincent Cassel – also from Mesrine, as well as, more recently, Black Swan), the cynical, intelligent, but distrusting brother of the girl De Fronsac seeks to court. In fact, when compared with the generally arrogant and closed-minded aristocrats, the company of the high class prostitute De Fronsac visits seems positively modern – the lady portrayed with all the elegance, seductiveness and overt sexuality that we have come to expect from stunning French/Italian actress Monica Bellucci over the years (married to Cassel, she’s been in a number of movies with him, including the controversial Irreversible, as well some US productions like Shoot ‘Em Up). Even the young girl who plays Marienne de Morangias (Emilie Dequenne) works, despite being the character who you will likely find the most infuriating (particularly in the Director’s Cut), as her interplay with De Fronsac is, for the most part, quite refreshingly playful, with hints of genuine chemistry.
We also find that, quite unusually, the Church itself is portrayed as being quite positive for once. Early on we learn that they have dispatched a spy from Rome, to investigate the potential religious consequences of the discovery of this purportedly supernatural monstrosity, which has reinvigorated the fear of the wrath of God within the local populace. The religious sub-arc is cleverly integrated into the proceedings, without feeling even in the slightest bit overbearing, yet grounding the movie with the same brooding Catholic omnipotence that was prevalent in those times.
Indeed Gans certainly seeks to let us have our cake and eat it, with icing and a cherry to, and his calculated plan pays dividends, allowing us a first-hand look at the intricacies of the investigation (which plays, as stated, much like some kind of forensic procedural, whether you compare to Sherlock Holmes or the likes of CSI), as well as broadening the depth of the characters to intrude upon their personal lives, romances and preferences, but interjecting it all with moments of pure action, as well as almost-otherworldly intrigue, sprinkled with a smattering of religion and political subterfuge.
In fact, the only point at which he almost drops the ball during this veritable feast is where the Beast is fully revealed – a manifestation of both visual and physical effects: the latter working surprisingly well, particularly on the close-ups, but the former looking decidedly dodgy for the most part (even back in 2001 the effects were far from advanced). Though Gans’s flair for stylish overplay works effectively for the flashback recollection of one of the Beast’s attacks, the later, ‘full reveal’ attack is a silly moment in which some viewers may have almost been pulled out of the movie – and it certainly destroys pretty-much all of the tension that had been built up until that point.
Thankfully the movie is saved by arguably the best, and coolest, character – Mani, played with suitable monosyllabic reticence and stoic poise and grace by accomplished martial artist and almost-mainstream actor Mark Dacascos (who had previously worked with the director as the eponymous lead in Crying Freeman, and had a promising action-hero career laid out, but who is shamefully probably now better known for being Iron Chef America, or contributing to the US Dancing with the Stars show). Although he does not say a great deal, and this fact could be attributable to him being the only actor not fluent in French, it sits well with a character who is Native American first and foremost. Similarly, he eschews the muskets and swords of the time in favour of a simple but viciously effective tomahawk. One of the film’s most memorable scenes sees him stripped down and war-painted, complete with all the requisite trappings of a true Mohawk warrior, and going toe-to-toe with the beast in a sequence reminiscent of a similar setpiece from Predator. His is easily the best, and perhaps most misunderstood (at least in this prejudice-founded setting) character in the story, and his personal story arc neatly returns us to his opening act of mercy in a manner loosely reminiscent of films like Carlito’s Way. The plight of his character allows the film to spiral, through some pretty clever twists and turns, to reach an engaging triple-conclusion which sees our heroes having to deal with not only The Beast, but also its protectors, and finally those behind its creation.
It’s a rollercoaster ride through some of the most colourful territories you could imagine – taking in not only the obvious sights of period France – complete with its extremes of lavish decadence and muddy squalor – but also the splendour of kinetic, well-choreographed, and, arguably, anachronistic martial arts (in several increasingly brutal extended sequences), via a detour of illicit sex (the director even traverses Monica Bellucci’s naked body in one of the most awesome – and ridiculous – scene changes that sees her curves fade into impossibly breast-like mountain peaks on a CG-crafted landscape) and of ostensibly supernatural horror. You are watching the finest blend of all of these ingredients, a mix which will likely leave you consistently and pleasantly surprised at the twists and turns along the way as you are swept up by the result of this somewhat unholy genre-splicing – and in awe of what is truly a magnificent beast indeed.
For those of you who are interested in discovering more about the different versions of this movie that have been released over the years, read on, but do note that the discussion extends beyond the scope of this release, which merely provides one, UK-cut version of the film, which runs a few minutes’ short of the original French Director’s Cut.
Right, so this is where it gets difficult. Brotherhood of the Wolf has, in my opinion, never had a perfect cut released: not back on DVD, nor on Blu-ray; not in France, nor in the UK or US. Unfortunately, this new UK Blu-ray release is no exception.
Worse still, I think that the version included on this Blu-ray is just about the worst cut you could get out of the different options – and the options are numerous, the longest of which being the Uncut Director’s Cut (151 minutes), which, in my opinion is also not the best cut. Why? Because it includes a number of scenes not seen in the theatrical cut which don’t entirely work. Then there’s the UK Director’s, which I’d regard as the ‘censored’ version (c. 139 minutes). This is the version we see on this Blu-ray here, and is basically the worst of both worlds. It’s not the shortest version, but it is missing vital scenes from the Theatrical Cut (detailed below), the film making even less sense because of the scenes that have been integrated back in from the French Uncut Director’s Cut.
Then there’s the French Theatrical Cut (c. 143 minutes), which was previously available on disc in the US as well. This does not have the ‘extra’ scenes present on both the French Director’s Cut and the UK Theatrical Cut / Censored Version, but it does include most of the scenes which were cut from all UK releases. Whilst not the longest, this is probably the most coherent version.
The scenes cut from all UK versions are, one would assume, to do with animal rights. Or something. After all, they all relate to the killing and stuffing of a wolf. Basically, halfway through the movie, we are told that the local authorities have failed, and that a ‘Chief of the Hunt’ shall be appointed from outside the territory, and that he is the only one allowed to hunt there from now on (i.e. him and his men). In all UK versions, that is the first and last we hear of him (obviously he got caught in traffic on the M25). The problem this brings is that later on in the movie, there is scant explanation for De Fronsac leaving, nor for the issues he might face if he stays, as this background explanation has been removed because of the excision of all of the scenes involving the ‘Chief of the Hunt’. These scenes include the Chief’s grand arrival, a couple of minor moments with him; and then a pivotal scene where he presents De Fronsac with a large, ‘normal’ wolf that he killed, and orders Chevalier to construct a fake ‘beast’ using his taxidermy skills. Despite clearly not wanting to, our hero sets about splicing, stuffing, armouring and painting this creature, and the resultant abomination is then presented to the court, and the King. Everybody assumes the beast is dead and, with the threat seemingly over, nobody wants De Fronsac around anymore, and this is his main reason for leaving (even the King compels him to return).
The French Director’s Cut includes one scene unique to it, beyond those listed above, which is a further scene involving this ‘Chief of the Hunt’ plot. In it, De Fronsac, drunk, reveals to Sylvia (Monica Bellucci) that the beast has not actually been caught, and that the creature presented to the King is a fake (a more important point when you later understand who Sylvia is secretly working for).
The rest of the scenes in the French Director’s Cut, are also available on all UK versions of the movie (hence the confusion over whether or not the UK version is the ‘Director’s Cut’) but, in my opinion, not only make less sense on the UK – as now you don’t understand why Chevalier is leaving – but also don’t really work very well in the full uncut version anyway.
The scenes are as follows: midway through the movie, we get a scene where someone sneaks into the brothel and steals one of the pictures that De Fronsac sketched of a nude prostitute (Monica Bellucci). The next scene we find that he is no longer welcome to visit Marienne, as this sketch has found its way to her and she is, obviously, none too impressed with it. Then we find Sylvia visiting Marienne in a church to tell her that she must forgive De Fronsac otherwise she will never see him again, and reassuring her that the name he always whispered in his sleep was Marienne’s (however much reassurance that is, when you know he was sleeping in a prostitute’s bed!). In the final Director’s Cut scene we find De Fronsac persuaded to return for once last hunt – by a letter from Marienne.
Again, these scenes are available on both the French Director’s Cut and all UK Cuts. Now, the reason why these scenes do not work all that well for me is because of the jarring effect of flipping from Marienne being interested in De Fronsac (before the painting scene), to her hating him (because of the painting), to her being in love with him again, and acting totally like ‘all is forgiven’ the next time they meet (which is in the scene that naturally follows in all versions). There was no need for this mini-rollercoaster ride, as it does not seem very believable that the two would be quite so ‘Romeo & Juliet’ about things when you consider that, the last time they saw one another, she was disgusted by his mere presence. For that reason, I think the Director’s Cut, even though it is longer, is not as good as the original Theatrical Cut.
So what we have here is the UK Director’s Cut (141 minutes), which is, in my opinion, the worst of all worlds. And it’s the only choice included on this new Blu-ray release. Here, as you may have already guessed, we get no ‘Chief of the Hunt’ scenes, which is frustrating – but not fatal. Unfortunately, we do get all of the rest of the extra scenes featured in the French Director’s Cut, and these now make even less sense. You see, without the Chief of the Hunt, it’s not clear why De Fronsac was leaving at all – it’s only implied that the Chief is taking over, as opposed to the ‘uncut Director’s Cut’ which shows the Chief introduced, taking over, making life difficult to De Fronsac, and finally forcing him to leave (as, officially, they have killed ‘the Beast’ – the wolf that he was ordered to stuff and ‘fake’ for the purposes of the King – and so the King orders that he return). It’s the worst version, in my opinion.
At the end of the day, however, despite going to great lengths to explain the different versions to you, I would say that none of the different cuts – however imperfect they may well be – are fatally flawed. This is still a great movie, whatever version you watch, it’s just a shame that they haven’t released a definitive version; or, more importantly, provided a release which gives us the option to choose which cut we want. In the meantime, though, you have to make do with this – because there’s no two ways about it, you need to own this movie!