Brotherhood of the Wolf

(Le Pacte des loups, Christophe Gans, France, 2001)


There are some epic films that never quite take grip in the viewer’s imagination. Landscapes stream by, battles spill a river of blood, sinister groups scheme behind closed doors, but the entire spectacle remains at a frosty distance.

Brotherhood of the Wolf is a sophisticated, expensively mounted French film that is easy to admire but hard to get involved in.

It starts well. A woman is seized and battered to death against rocks like a rag doll by an unseen beast. The rest of the story’s 142 minutes plod through the search-and-destroy counter-response to this trauma – only one of many such killings across the land – as well as its subsequent political ramifications.

Central characters include two driven hunters, Fronsac (Samuel Le Bihan) with his enigmatic, Iroquois sidekick, Mani (Mark Dacascos), and the magnificent Sylvia (Monica Bellucci), a behind-the-scenes operator.

Director Christophe Gans is someone who, in an American context, would be called a movie brat. An amateur filmmaker and fan-critic at a precocious age, Gans cultivated an appreciation for ambitious directors working within the genres of the fantastique such as David Cronenberg. His first feature, Crying Freeman (1995) was a live-action version of a famous Japanese anime, co-scripted with a critic from Cahiers du cinéma magazine.

So Gans is steeped in cinema. But in Brotherhood of the Wolf the result is not a barrage of specific quotes from or homages to other people’s films, but a layering of diverse styles. The combination is indeed striking: the gory, artificial effects of Italian horror cinema meet the obsessive period recreation of Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975), martial arts choreography (by the renowned Philip Kwok) meets a picaresque story of manhood won and lost that is reminiscent of classic American Westerns. And that dimly glimpsed wolf-beast recalls the apparitions from Jacques Tourneur’s stylish British horror film Curse of the Demon (1958).

In a peculiar but effective bit of casting, Gans uses the teenage leads from two ultra-realist films by the Dardenne brothers, Émilie Dequenne (Rosetta [1999] and Jérémie Renier (La Promesse [1996]). Many historic associations with the glorious days of the French New Wave filter through the weathered faces of Jean-François Stévenin, Edith Scob and Bernard Fresson.

Not content to confine his tale to a movie-defined universe, Gans also nudges the sprawling story into a vague allegory about the rise of right-wing movements in contemporary France. But the film’s ambitions, on all its levels, outrun its capacity to sustain a mood, create a momentum or draw us into the dramatically changing fortunes of history.

© Adrian Martin November 2002

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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