Brotherhood of the Wolf [retro review]

“Ghost or not, I’ll split you in two.”

The Scoop: 2001 R, directed Christophe Gans by and starring Samuel Le Bihan, Vincent Cassel, and Monica Bellucci

Tagline: N/A

Summary Capsule: Cujo invades France and the Native American population retaliates

Justin’s Rating: But where’s the cheese?

Justin’s Review: What is wrong with France, I ask you? Really! Just when you think they can’t get any more gonzo or cigarette-addicted, they go and set a new limit. Sure, they make great bread and toast, but they are also clearly operating out of a separate dimension than the rest of the world.

For instance, Brotherhood of the Wolf is a great big confusing ball of genres that just doesn’t make up its mind what it wants to be when it grows up. In fact, it wasn’t until the last half hour when the structure and story of the film fell into place that I settled down and ate my Twizzlers with relief. I do so hate to be stumped by wacky French films. I bravely endured subtitles because I thought I was going to get some wicked 18th century martial arts flick, but there is a massive derth of fight sequences after the first fifteen minutes until near the end.

So what was it? It was bloody. Very bloody. I was completely desensitized watching it because I had just previously seen Black Hawk Down, but still. Brotherhood had few qualms at pulling out the queasy stops, including a nude female corpse which was half-eaten.

Extremely loosely based on a historical story, a region of a French countryside has been terrorized by a creature simply known as the Beast. As the French militia prance around shooting muskets and laying anti-Beast sticky strips on paths, two strangers ride into town with the right attitude and skills necessary to save the day.

Or so we, a Western audience, would assume. Actually, it’s more like these two arrive on holiday. There’s Fronsac, a French ex-army philosopher embalmer hunter, and his (get this) Native American sidekick, Mani. Fronsac and Mani give the hunt for the Beast lip service, mostly because they’re too busy doing nothing and visiting bordellos. Oh sure, every time news that the Beast has killed again, they act all concerned and trot out for some forensic foreplay, but they’re never very proactive. In fact, for a bulk of the movie I was assuming that their plan was simply to wait for the Beast to stop being rude and come to them, saving them some travel time.

Finally, a conspiracy surrounding the Beast is revealed and the movie takes form way too late to do it justice. The government covers up the murders (and our heroes reluctantly help out) and some vague Church-pagan plot gets layed out. It was all very “ohhh!” at the time, then it quickly became “oh.” once I started to think about it. It is pretty dumb, actually. Pretty much everyone’s in on it, except our heroes, who aren’t really that heroic after all. It’s as if the filmmakers couldn’t decide on who should be the key villain, so they promoted half the cast to fill the spot.

Mani fulfills more Native American stereotypes seen on film since the debut of Dances With Wolves. He’s portrayed as a wise Indian shaman of sorts, down on his luck because the French slaughtered his tribe and he alone was spared. He talks to the animals. He’s bummed when animals die, but couldn’t care less about homicides. He tells everyone their “animal spirits”. He uses herbs to save the comatose. He’s the most calm, self-contained person in the film. He’s a wiz with the tomahawk. Oh, and he’s also a brutal savage who kills only when pressed to the fact. He’s actually more civilized than the entire world! Now, I don’t know how PC it is to even highlight this character, but that’s about six Native American stereotypes too many. He really is devoid of an original personality, save a few spots of quality humor.

Compare and contrast to our other lead Fronsac, who lacks most admirable traits typically found in an action-adventure hero. He quickly destroys any positive preconceptions about his nature when he openly displays his dishonesty and cowardice (particularly when he doesn’t stand up the government). He spends most of his free time, of which there seems to be a lot, either trying to court and win the love of a Marquis’ daughter, or sleeping with a prostitute. Honestly. In the end he fights the bad guys not because it’s the right thing to do, but just because he’s out for revenge. Yes, there’s a fine role model, boys and girls!

Brotherhood of the Wolf is not all bad, nor all good. It’s all about moments. It attempts to be stylish with costumes and settings, and achieves this greatly (the haunted French countryside in particular invoked memories of Sleepy Hollow). There’s a treasure chest of unique weaponry, a lot of chilling moments, and not a few action sequences that were pretty hip. Sort of.

I’m not sure what the filmmaking term is for the camera technique where it goes from normal 24 frames per second time to slow-mo and back within the same cut, but this sort of technique was used a lot in Brotherhood. A lot, in the same way that “a lot” of teenagers have acne. I personally think that it looks cool, but it definitely bordered on overuse, and it also seemed like a cheap attempt to connect the action sequences with those of The Matrix.

It’s a jerky, unevenly paced movie that has strange bedfellows in its genre: martial arts, historical, French period, costume, conspiracy, gothic horror, mystery, romance, and animal rights. It gives us ambiguous heroes who never seem properly motivated or interested. And it’s definitely unclear what the moral or ultimate message of the film should be. Yet, if you can stomach graphic themes, Brotherhood of the Wolf is a fascinating watch despite its many flaws.

Men in strange masks are not to be trusted


Intermission!

  • De Fronsac travels on a ship aptly named “Frere loup”, French for “Brother wolf”.
  • The young Marquis d’Apcher is wounded on his right arm during the fight with the beast. Later, it is his left arm that is bandaged.
  • When the scene goes from the naked prostitute to a countryside shot, the scenery is molded to look like the girl (breasts and face)
  • Canada has trout with fur!
  • When Fronsac tosses the coin and Mani catches it (as Fronsac didn’t lose the bet), Mani then pockets the coin
  • There really is a story in the history books about a wolfish beast that crept about at night and devoured unfortunate peasants in 18th-century France during the reign of Louis XV. It was called the Beast of Gevaudan, and killed anywhere between 60 to 100 people.
  • Subtitles Alert! Yes, this movie is presented in French with English subtitles. Should that scare you off? No. First of all, there are many long sequences with little or no dialogue. Second, you read way faster than they speak, so after a few minutes you won’t even notice that you’re reading. Finally, you can pick up a few French words along the way (and promptly forget them, as I have).

Groovy Quotes

Jean-Francois de Morangias: Congratulations. If I had both my hands, I’d applaud you.

Jean-Francois de Morangias: You are too late. The beast is immortal.
Gregoire de Fronsac: IT may be immortal, but YOU aren’t!

Mani: All women have the same color when the candle is out.

Jean-Francois de Morangias: Ghost or not, I’ll split you in two.

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