Universal // 2002 // 164 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Dan Mancini (Retired) // September 23rd, 2002
"The beast is only an instrument, a weapon in the hands of a sick mind...the beast has a master and it's him that I want." -Grégoire de Fronsac
Director Christophe Gans (Crying Freeman) offers up monsters, kung-fu, elaborate costumery, snooty nobleman, and a little bit of sex...all in one flick. You gotta love it.
When a mysterious beast begins slaughtering women and children in the French district of Gévaudan, King Louis XV sends his court gardener, naturalist, and taxidermist, Grégoire de Fronsac (Samuel Le Bihan), to investigate. Newly returned to Europe from the Seven Years War, Fronsac travels with his companion and blood-brother, Mani (Marc Dacascos, The Crow: Stairway to Heaven), an Iroquois who fought loyally by his side in the Americas. Gévaudan is a small district far from Paris, isolated in the Margeride Mountains, and Fronsac and Mani find a strange and insular community of nobleman, shepherds, brigands, and denizens of a lush but almost surreal bordello.
Witnesses and survivors of the beast describe it as wolf-like but the size of a cow, and singularly bent on attacking human beings. Fronsac confirms the size of the beast by examining bite marks in the corpse of a victim, and is left scratching his head over the fact that neither its size nor its pattern of aggressive behavior are consistent with those of a wolf. His interactions with the noblefolk of the district (particularly ally Marquis d'Apcher, burgeoning love interest Marianne de Morangias, and her arrogant brother Jean-François (Vincent Cassell, Birthday Girl)), as well as his dalliances with a mysterious Italian prostitute who, by virtue of the traffic in her bordello, is privy to the community's darkest secrets, lead Fronsac to the conclusion that there is more afoot than the rampage of a savage beast, that men are involved.
When the king's sergeant-at-arms is dispatched on a bogus hunt for the beast, then exerts political pressure on Fronsac to create the monster's corpse from the remains of a number of wolves slain in the hunt, thereby assuring Gévaudan's residents of the king's sovereign power in dealing with the problem, Fronsac comes to believe this conspiracy of man and beast may threaten the throne of France itself.
Before we get into Brotherhood of the Wolf as a genre-bending and -melding epic, let me just say that above all it's fun. Certainly it challenges you to put aside your expectations, suspend disbelief, and go with the flow, but having done so it rewards with a beautifully photographed world rendered in minute detail and filled with suspense, scares, and martial-arts action.
It's true that the film is a mystery, thriller, romantic costume drama, martial-arts action film, horror film (with ample homage paid to the Hammer catalogue), and a based-on-a-true-story epic (there really was a beast of Gévaudan who slaughtered women and children on the French countryside in 1764; what the beast truly was has never been determined). It's all those things with a bit of sex and James Fenimore Cooper-style (The Last of the Mohicans) adventure tale thrown in for good measure. During the first act, one feels the clash of genres, but rest assured as you move forward things begin to smooth out (both because of narrative progress and one's own acceptance of the nature of the film), and by the end it's clear that this mish-mash of styles isn't just a gimmick but the best way to tell a very engaging story.
The film overwhelms with its detail -- visually, narratively, thematically, even historically -- but still manages to play primarily as a highly entertaining action/horror flick. Without giving key plot-points away, Brotherhood of the Wolf delves into the human conflicts inherent in the junctions of politics, religious dogma, science, and mysticism, but it never does so in a heavy-handed, preachy way. It handles these things so deftly that, while they're fun to think about, you're never forced (or even encouraged) to respond primarily intellectually to the film. Whatever your political or religious bent, you're not likely to be offended by this movie. While smart, it's a film that wants you to feel (scared, joyous, sad, angry, exhilarated, turned on) and experience it much more than think it. One could, I suppose, read it as an allegory of modern politics, a critique of totalitarian impulses, but I think that's too simplistic. The politics are best applied historically, as indicative of the sort of chaos and unrest that was boiling under the surface of 18th century French politics and would lead, in less than a generation, to the French Revolution. Certainly, the film seems fascinated with the nature of power -- political power, religious power and its connection to political power, sexual power, the power of fear; mostly it draws a connection between knowledge and power. To know is to be powerful; to be in the dark is to be vulnerable.
It plays with the dichotomy of science/rationalism and intuition/mysticism as competing modes of human knowledge and understanding. Fronsac and Mani are, to a certain extent, a Scully and Mulder partnership (although they're never antagonistic toward one another). Fronsac, the naturalist and philosopher, anchored by empiricism, is reluctant to accept a supernatural explanation for the horrors that surround him. Mani is a shaman who believes in spirit guides and feels a deep sense of connection to the wolves who are savagely hunted by Gévaudan's citizens -- the fact he's Native American makes the whole thing a bit of a cliché, but it's handled delicately enough you never feel like PETA provided the director with script notes before the shoot. Ultimately, the film never clearly favors rationalism or mysticism as the soundest path to knowledge, but implies a necessity for both. Fronsac is our window into the world of the film, we're made to identify with him, see the world through the eyes of a man of the Enlightenment, but this is a horror movie with elements of the supernatural, so our hero's reliance on the observable can't bring him to the truth. Fronsac and Mani, together, are the complete man, rational and intuitive, material and spiritual. Only their combined talents can uncover the truth that is hidden from them.
But I'm getting way too heavy. This is, after all, a sort of modified werewolf movie. While these historical and philosophical musings are used to underscore major themes, they don't inform the plot in any crucial way (for example, removing the loose connection to the French Revolution would not substantively damage the narrative arc, nor would excising any mention of the church; removing all references to the king would require some minor alterations to the plot but its major components would still be intact). Instead, these elements exist as texture, resonating through the story, adding to the overwhelming richness of detail. In this way, they're aesthetically consistent with the multiple-genre story construction, cinematography, production design, costume design, lavishly choreographed fight sequences, and optical and digital special effects. Although unnecessary, they don't feel extraneous; they simply add to the pleasure of the experience.
So, what am I saying? This movie is a whole lot of style and very little substance. Normally, I hate movies like that, but this one works. The culinary analogue to Brotherhood of the Wolf is tiramisu: it may be all flavor and no nutrients, but what a decadent, pleasure-inducing flavor! If nothing else, director Christophe Gans has demonstrated that, if you're going to go down the style-over-substance path, go all the way. Pack in as much style as anyone can imagine existing in a single film, then double it. The densely layered style of the film creates a kind of resonant substance, approximating the cultural and psychological minutiae of human existence. Even if those details are only loosely connected to the plot, they create an illusion of authenticity in a film world that is, in truth, highly artificial.
Oh, and did I mention the fight sequences are kick-ass?
As I stated above, the film is a beautiful thing to behold. Cinematographer Dan Laustsen must have had a blast shooting it. Colors range from cool and muted, tilted toward the blue/green end of the spectrum in some of the outdoor scenes, to warm and fully saturated reds and oranges and golds in the bordello, to deeply penetrating darkness accented with rain and wisping fog in film's creepier moments. Laustsen unveils all sorts of lavish camera trickery, using slow-motion and dissolves and copious camera movement in ways completely out of place in your average 18th-century costume drama, but perfectly in tune with Gans' vision. And Laustsen is given a world worthy of being shot this way. The costume and production designs are as varied as his camera work (and every other aspect of the film). We move back and forth from the austere beauty of the homes of the noblemen, to the dirt and grime but also natural beauty of the pastures and forests, to the baroque flourishes inside the bordello. Characters are always costumed in harmony with their surroundings. Universal's DVD renders all this spectacle with gorgeous clarity. With the exception of some slight grain here and there, this 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer is close to perfect.
The DVD offers two soundtrack options: Dolby Digital 5.1 in both English and French. Both are strong, but the original French soundtrack is fuller and mixed a bit louder. That's the one I listened to all the way through. I think it's safe to say the track is reference quality. Surrounds are used cleverly and often. While not quite as thumping as New Line's The Lord of the Rings disc, there's still plenty of LFE in the mix -- your subwoofer will see some action during this one. My one nit-pick with the disc's sound options (and it really is just a nit-pick) is that the dubbed English track is the default. I prefer seeing a film subtitled and in its original language (I like to hear the actors' real voices), but I'm probably in the minority and it certainly doesn't kill me to jump over to the Set Up menu before starting the movie. Just be warned that those listening to the English track are missing out on the superior of the two.
In terms of extras, this U.S. region 1 disc is the least impressive of all possible options. There is a region 2 disc that's more of a special edition, and a 3-disc French set that contains everything you might possibly want to know about the film. In addition, Quebec is getting what sounds like a region 1 version of the 3-disc French set. Still, this Universal release has a couple nice extras. Most importantly, the disc contains an extended cut of the film. Assuming time listings in IMDb are correct, the DVD cut of the film runs 22 minutes longer than the U.S. theatrical version. Since I didn't see it in theaters, I have no idea what's been added, but in the Deleted Scenes feature on the disc, Christophe Gans states the romance between Fronsac and Marianne is more fully developed in the extended version, so that gives you some idea.
Speaking of the Deleted Scenes feature, it's a much better extra than I anticipated. It's a deleted scenes documentary rather than a cluster of stuff left on the cutting room floor. Most of the 40-minute running time is spent with Gans explaining where the 5 scenes shown originally fit into the movie and why the decision was made to leave them out. The scenes themselves run a couple minutes long each, are presented in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio, but aren't color timed and show fairly prevalent compression artifacts. There is also production footage, shot on video, of the each of the scenes. All in all, this is a good little feature.
Bottom line: Brotherhood of the Wolf is an extremely fun and stylish flick. Just pop it on and settle in for the ride.
Brotherhood of the Wolf is found not guilty. Universal gets a slap on the wrist. They've delivered a disc with such a strong presentation of the film, I feel like an ingrate complaining...but, why not a 2-disc special edition?
Court is adjourned.
Review content copyright © 2002 Dan Mancini; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2016 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English, dubbed)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French, original language)
Running Time: 164 Minutes
Release Year: 2002
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scenes
* Production Notes