Welcome to The Essentials, a series of articles originally published in 2016 that dared to try and create a list of essential movies for film lovers. This entry explores ‘Brotherhood of the Wolf.’
Movies are typically relegated to genres, but while there are plenty that fit comfortably into one story classification or another the best films often merge disparate elements into a more satisfying whole. Few films though manage to blend as many genres with as much success as Christophe Gans’ 2001 feature, Brotherhood of the Wolf.
It begins as a period piece before shifting fluidly to include elements of horror, martial arts action, romance, conspiracy thriller, and historical/social commentary, and it does it all in a rather fast-moving two and a half hours (or so, depending on which cut you’re watching). New characters and subplots are added as layers are pulled back to reveal core threads featuring friendship vs fealty, science vs religious abuse, and Mark ‘The Chairman’ Dacascos vs an army of muddy, claw-wielding gypsies.
And did I mention Monica Bellucci plays a Vatican spy working undercover in a brothel?
The film opens with French revolutionaries surrounding the Marquis d’Apcher, an elderly nobleman who refuses to run from their impending judgement. Instead, he writes the final entry in his memoirs, the true story from his youth – a tale loosely based on a real-world string of 18th century killings – regarding the legendary Beast of Gévaudan. An unknown creature has been ravaging the French countryside leaving mauled and deceased peasants in its wake, but after repeated failures by local authorities to kill the beast – they’ve been slaughtering wolves by the hundreds in the belief that the murderous culprit is of the lupine variety – an expert is called in to assist.
King Louis XV’s royal naturalist, Grégoire de Fronsac (Samuel Le Bihan), arrives with his faithful friend and sidekick, a Mohawk Indian named Mani (Dacascos), and they quickly determine through scientific means that the creature is no mere wolf. Like an alternate universe Holmes & Watson, the pair investigate this riff on the Hound of the Baskervilles and discover there may be human hands behind the beast’s bite.
Scenes of horror punctuate the film as the creature – unseen by viewers until the second half – stalks human prey through a handful of atmospheric and tense sequences. Gans uses the countryside to great advantage highlighting both the remoteness and the earthiness of the locales, and the tangible nature of the world enhances his camera/editing styles. We can feel the ground tremble as the creature approaches and see the terror on its victims’ faces as they’re tossed and torn like rag dolls in stark slow motion.
The same holds true for the film’s numerous fight scenes as the action affords clean views of Dacascos’ athleticism through both tight choreography and the slowing of certain sequences. Did Native American Indians really know martial arts? Now is not the time for such questions. Now is the time to enjoy multiple fights pitting Mani against dirty, muddy peasants who also appear to be trained in various forms of karate.
Fronsac romances the daughter of the count who’s hosting his stay, but while he attempts to woo the very independent Marianne de Morangias (Émilie Dequenne) he keeps busy with other women on the side – this a French film don’t forget – including one of the brothel’s more mysterious ladies, Sylvia (Bellucci). While he finds favor with the women, most of the men are far less welcoming. Chief among them is Marianne’s one-handed brother, Jean-François (Vincent Cassel, playing a rare villain role), who in addition to a sneering attitude toward the lower class harbors a not-so secretive physical attraction to his sister. An avid hunter, he lost his limb to a lion attack in Africa and fills that void by being what the French call, “le bad dude.”
While the action, horror, and a visit to a brothel offer immediate sensory satisfaction the real meat of the film comes in the character interactions and central theme of attempted oppression. The locals are divided into two camps with wealth and privilege filling the space between them, and the beast’s rampage appears to only be an immediate problem for the poor as one of the elite points out the creature is targeting only the “vermin” while leaving the aristocrats untouched.
Fronsac is pressured to deliver an end to the matter – he’s compelled to craft a fake beast from the corpse of a large wolf and deliver it to Paris. They unveil it there as both a conclusion to the troubles and a tribute to the king, and when Fronsac objects he discovers the decision was made for political reasons. A little red book has been making waves with accusations that the king has forsaken God in favor of science and philosophy and that the creature has been sent to punish him and his aristocracy for their sins. He’s told in no uncertain terms that the issue is now closed, the books are being destroyed, and the king remains the greatest thing since sliced bread.
He’s no pushover though and instead returns to Gévaudan to kill the beast and seal the deal with Marianne, but in the process of attempting both he learns the truth behind the attacks. A secret society, those of the film’s title, are behind both the book and the beast’s onslaught in an effort to stoke a rebellion against a king who’s turned his country’s back on God. It’s an interesting contrast – the society wants to oppress knowledge in favor of the almighty, and the king fights that attempt by… banning books?
There are a lot of moving parts here, and it’s a fun, energetic change from the typical action/horror/historical/romances.
Another change from the genre norm comes in Mani’s fate. Dacascos may be more famous for the Iron Chef or even Hawaii Five-O, but this is his best role, period. Even with limited dialogue he manages to convey a complete character as a man in tune with the world in ways these more “educated” Europeans can only imagine. It’s an interesting element added into their battle between faith and science as Mani’s beliefs allow room for both equally.
Dacascos endears Mani to viewers through his fighting skills, observations, expressions, and even his brief time at the brothel, and his death becomes far more affecting than action films typically deliver. The story continues after his demise, albeit with less charisma, and it does so while adding “revenge thriller” to its mash-up of genres.
All of the pieces come together for a finale overflowing with bloody deaths and bone-crunching martial arts – because of course Fronsac knows how to fight with grace and style too – as justice is served at the end of fists, blades, and wolves’ teeth. It’s immensely satisfying all around as the film’s various threads involving the beast, the class divide, the Pope’s sexiest spy, Fronsac’s romance, and the mystery of the brotherhood all come together in the end.
The two final elements, more closure than codas, present Brotherhood of the Wolf‘s last word on oppression. The beast is revealed to be a lion shaped through cruelty to be an enslaved killer controlled by an elite, and as we return to the Marquis who penned the memoir we watch as he’s led to the gallows by a mob tired of tyranny.
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