Brotherhood of the Wolf, The (Le Pacte des Loups) (France, 2001) ** 1/2
Directed by Christophe Gans. Written by Gans & Stephane Cabel. Photography, Dan Laustsen. Editing, David Wu, Sebastian Prangere. Production design, Guy Claude Francois. Cast: Samuel Le Bihan, Mark Dacascos, Emilie Dequenne, Vicent Cassel, Monic Bellucci, Jeremie Renier, Jean Yanne, Jean-Francois Stevenin, Hans Meyer, Edith Scob, et al. A Universal Focus release. 145 minutes. French with subtitles. R (intense violence, sex).
The setting is the district of Gevaudan, within Southern France's "Department" of Lozere, very mountainous and sparsely populated.
Between 1764 and 1767, a mysterious critter, "the Beast of Gevaudan" killed anywhere from 50 to 150 peasants (mostly women and children) or even more, depending on sources. (In the movie it is hundreds but then the more the merrier). On 17 June 1767 local nobles organized a mega-hunt. Game-keeper Jean Chastel caught up with the beast, killed it with one shot. The monster was not a wolf, but a mix of a huge mastiff or bulldog and some other type of canine.
The movie, one of the most lavish to come out of France, arranges matters fancifully. King Louis XV sends to the stricken area his favorite naturalist, a petty nobleman, the Chevalier Gregoire de Fronsac (Samuel Le Bihan).
Do not confuse naturalists and naturists, the latter meaning "nudists." Here the gentry live a fastuous life, wear chic clothes. Fronsac leads the events. He arrives with his bloodbrother and sidekick Mani,. They've been inseparable since the French and Indian Wars of North America. Mani is a Mohawk Indian.but looks nothing like it. He is played by Mark Dacascos, the famous Kung Fu and Karate champion who has been in a host of movies. He was born in Hawaii to Eurasian parents. Here he displays such amazing martial arts that he deserves a statue in Hong Kong.
Our film is one long, over-the-top-of-the-top shaggy wolf story, with a gallery of characters and another of borrowings, allusion, quotations, "homages" from and to a huge number of films. Fronsac, a cool fellow, among other activities tries to figure out if the beast is an animal, a man or a creature manipulated by a man.
This is essentially an American-style action flick which tips its many hats at Hollywood movies of many genres, from Indiana Jones pictures to the "Enter the Dragon" series, spaghetti westerns, horror, the supernatural and so on.
Director Christophe Gans (now 42), unknown in the USA, is a fanatical cinephile. His passion for, and knowledge of films are impressive. 20 years ago he had created an unconventional movie magazine,"Starfix," now defunct. Later he launched the magazine "HK" (for Hong Kong), HIs one previous feature, "Crying Freeman" (starring Mark Dacascos) was an homage to John Woo,
"Wolf" is so immensely ambitious that it soon becomes a mess, a hodgepodge that moves simultaneously in too many directions, has no true main thread, is full of digressions, lacks coherence, confuses you with beefcake, cheesecake, orgies of violence (including incest and rape), turns up the decibels, has fuzzy characters, serves big rations of "colorfulness," relishes overkill, ends up as a spurious product.
Its excesses and horrors times can be funny sometimes. Its main "raison d' etre" is as a stylistic exercise, an exploration of techniques. Mind you, the photography is superb, the sights can be splendid, the sets awesome. Some inventions work, e.g. the improbably chic bordello in the middle of nowhere. Others don't. The beast, when we see it, is vague and unconvincing. Sleight of hand and sleight of image are not enough. There's no shred of logic. The blend of Hollywood and French elegance is uneasy. Then there's that maniacal number of shots that follow the principle "if the camera can move, do it!"
You may enjoy the sheer look of the thing, but it is so confused that it reminds me of humorist Robert Benchley who, sent to Venice by a paper, immediately cabled his editor : "All streets under water. Please advise."