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Brotherhood of the Wolf (Le Pacte des Loups)
Reviewed by Jason Myers, ©

Format: Movie
By:   Christophe Gans (writer, director)
Released:   January 11, 2002. Wide Release: January 25.
Review Date:  
RevSF Rating:   10/10 (What Is This?)

True story: From 1764 to 1767, a monstrous wolf-like creature terrorized the French countryside near Gevaudan, killing more than 100 people. She preferred women and children, and though many hunting parties were organized, with noblemen coming from all over France to participate, the Beast of Gevaudan, for three years, could not be stopped. (More about the Beast of Gevaudan can be found here, here, and here.)

Brotherhood of the Wolf is based on the records of the specifics of the attacks, and on the descriptions of the Beast of Gevaudan; some of the characters in the film are historical figures who were involved in the hunt for the Beast. But, under the hand of director Christophe Gans, what could have been an 18th century X-Files episode instead becomes an epic, sensual hunt for a beast - a tale of a truly menacing Grendel and a couple of Beowulfs who have no comprehension of the black things they've stumbled upon.

Our protagonists are Gregoire de Fronsac, cavalier and scientist, and his faithful companion Mani, a mysterious bronze-skinned foreigner who talks to wolves and kicks unholy ass. They've been dispatched by King Louise XV to figure out what the hell is going on in Gevaudan.

And what the hell is going on in Gevaudan?

Well, I'm not going to tell you that.

What I can tell you is that this isn't your normal subtitled French import movie. It's not really an art flick, though it does have the rich textures of one. Brotherhood of the Wolf is, at its core, an action movie. Which is why it probably won't get nearly as many awards and critical kudos as that other French movie, Amelie (highly recommended, also, by the way). But Brotherhood of the Wolf should be of interest to you, even if you've gotten a bit tired of action movies. If you're like me, action movies are starting to lose their appeal because you've gotten to know the formula too well. Most American action movies (Tomb Raider, The Mummy and Jurassic Park sequels) are so by-the-numbers that even the enjoyable ones are too predictable to generate any real thrills. No matter how great the peril, there's nothing to be afraid of, because it's an American movie, and, in the end, there'll be an explosion, a kiss, and everyone will live happily ever after. It's not that I don't like movies with happy endings. It's that happy endings mean little if the outcome is a foregone conclusion. Emotionally, there is nothing at stake.

Which is why I love a movie that keeps me guessing, keeps me off balance. Part of the reason that Brotherhood of the Wolf keeps you off balance is that it's French, and, unless you've seen a lot of French movies, you don't know the formula (assuming there is one). The other reason is that director Christophe Gans refuses to let Brotherhood of the Wolf rest solidly in one genre. Is it a costume drama? Is it a horror movie? Is it a fantasy? Is it a swashbuckling romance? Is it a martial arts movie? Is it an atmospheric thriller? If you can't figure out what genre it is, you can't apply the right formula to guess what's going to happen, and you're left with no choice but to go along for the ride.

Brotherhood of the Wolf resists easy classification because it combines so many different elements that by all rights should not be put all in the same movie. You've got courtly intrigue, sallow men in powdered wigs, and scented women in intricate dresses. You've got racism, classism, scientific skepticism, and animal mysticism. You've got a double-kicking backflipping Mani in a slow-mo brawl with some maniacal fur-wearing Mad Max type toughs who wear claws on their forearms. At one point in the movie, Fronsac and Mani end up in a brothel with an atmosphere that's Phantom of the Opera meets Cirque du Soleil, and a doorman who looks like a strongman/ringmaster. In most movies, a sex scene stops a movie dead in its tracks. But this bawdy, dream-like sojourn is another perfect step deeper into the musk and absinthe-soaked dark heart of the wood. The scene, and most of the film, seeps with a perfume of overripe fruit and Masque of the Red Death foreboding.

You could call it overwrought, depending on your taste. But if you're someone to whom "overwrought" means "just wrought enough"….

Brotherhood of the Wolf is baroque and decadent, and not just because of flesh and fabric and candlelight. Gans treats the gore and the fight scenes with the same lover's touch, turning weapons into fetish objects, reveling in the crack of bone and the impact of fists, lingering on the drip of thick scarlet… in what amounts to a kind of eroticism of viscera. The whole package of exquisite excess is brought together by cinematography and sound design that can turn a splash of muddy water into the loudest and most beautiful thing in the universe. During a fight in a rainstorm, it sounds as if clouds have opened up inside the theater. Gans slows down and speeds up the film, creating a staccato of sounds and moments that suspend in time like a raindrop dangling from a leaf and then rush onward, liquid quick. The fight scene cinematography (and those beautiful, beautiful raincoats) will draw scoffing, seen-that-before comparisons to The Matrix, but what Gans does is far more simple than what the Wachowski brothers did, and just as effective in its own way.

Brotherhood of the Wolf, like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, deserves to find a large American audience, but I'm not sure that it will. It's too much of an unapologetic popcorn movie to get much intellectual movie snob respect. It's artful without being arty, if you can grok that. And, at two and a half hours, with plenty of quiet scenes and Merchant Ivory banter in between the heart-pounding stuff, less patient filmgoers may well be thinking "get on with it, already."

But trust me, you want to see this movie. Waiting until it comes to your local Blockbuster Video store would be… just plain wrong.

-Film/DVD editor Jason Myers likes French fries, French kisses, French toast, French directors, and he has a plaster lawn frog named Robespierre. Sometimes, late at night, Robespierre talks to him and says, "Why do think I have this outrageous French accent, you silly English ki-nig-git?" (We think Jason might be on crack.)

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