Movie Review: The Brotherhood of the Wolf (Le pacte des loups), (DVD, 2001)

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The place is the province of Gévaudan, France.  The year is 1764, two and a half decades before the Revolution.  A mysterious beast is ravaging the countryside, slaughtering not livestock but women and children by the hundreds.  King Louis XV sends two mysterious men to investigate.  In the process, they uncover a sinister plot running through all walks of society in defiance of the enlightenment principals taking hold across Europe and the New World.  A dark historical fantasy rivaling the best Hollywood has to offer, this French atmospheric masterpiece is an impressive feat of cinematic opulence.  Loosely inspired by actual events, Le pacte des loups (which premiered in 2001) overshadows every single subsequent Hollywood monster/horror/historical fantasy film (including the Underworld movies, The Brothers Grimm and of course Van Helsing).

I have to admit.  I’m a sucker for anything set in France during the Enlightenment.  There’s something about the contemplative, philosophical, cerebral yet debaucherous nature of the period that just works better when set in France than anywhere else.  Le pacte des loups explores these aspects to a very interesting degree while still maintaining a brisk pace, a sinfully delicious amount of extravagance and a great deal of action.  The script by Stephane Cabel is quite intelligent for an action film no matter where one’s country of origin is.  Cabel demands that an audience knows how to pay attention.  I wouldn’t recommend multitasking when watching Le pacte des loups.  The key to this film is in the details, and I LOVE action/fantasy films that require one’s undivided attention.  Allow yourself to be swept into the extraordinary world that has been crafted.  Immerse yourself in the film without any outside distractions.  This is a shameless, glossy, hands-down gorgeous historical fantasy/horror fest, so you’ll be glad you did.

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The casting of Le pacte des loups is really quite impressive.  Each actor creates a compelling character whether they portray a hero, villain or someone in between.  I haven’t seen an American action film that was populated with bona-fide character actors who take the craft seriously in ages, and to be so drawn into a foreign-language film is a rarity in my experience (only the absolute best achieve such a feat).  Samuel Le Bihan portrays Chevalier Grégoire de Fronsac, a knight who recently returned from fighting the French and Indian War in New France (Canada).  Le Bihan plays Fronsac as an old-school swashbuckler – dashing, daring, debonnaire and capable – with such innate charisma that you instantly want him to be in every scene.  He’s accompanied by a Mohawk Iroquois mystic named Mani, played by Mark Dacascos.  Dacascos has very little dialogue, but an immense physical presence that beautifully compliments Le Bihan’s charisma.  His fight scenes are something to behold (see the above pic).  Vincent Cassell (known to American audiences as François Toulour in Oceans 12 and 13) assumes his usual baddie type as the embittered, crippled and alcoholic Jean-François de Morangias.  He portrays a saddened, pathetic and envious man extraordinarily well.  Émilie Dequenne is radiant as the not-so-in-distress damsel Marianne de Morangias.  She brings a wonderful charm to her role, layering feigned innocence with a passionate curiosity.  The extraordinary Monica Bellucci (known to American audiences as Persephone in The Matrix trilogy and the Mirror Queen in The Brothers Grimm), exquisite as always, brings a sensual mystique and arresting authority to her role of Sylvia, a high-class courtesan with a deep secret.  Sylvia may just be the most compelling character in the film due to the fantastical and mysterious impressions Bellucci is able to convey.  Jeremie Renier plays the young, bookish Thomas d’Apcher with the brightness and good-humor of youth.  What could have been a comically “nerdy” archetype evolves into one of the most capable characters in the film.  If only intelligence were valued in the States as it is in Europe.  Supporting roles of note include Hans Meyer as the Marquis d’Apcher, Jean-Francois Stevenin as Henri Sardis and Johan Leysen as Antoine de Beauterne.

The color palette utilized in Le pacte des loups is extraordinary, mirroring the harsh differences between seasons, stark contradictory natures of pre-revolution nobility and peasantry, and even the characters themselves.  Production values (especially cinematography) are absolutely exquisite.  The film is a visual feast asking to be devoured ravenously.

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Costumes are breathtakingly beautiful and unique, almost Gilliam-esque but sleeker, smoother, more extravagant and more elegant.  Particularly impressive costumes include anything worn (and partially not worn) by Monica Bellucci, Vincent Cassell’s black-and-red coat, Émilie Dequenne’s all-red hunting outfit (above, with Le Bihan) and the initial costumes worn by Samuel Le Bihan and Mark Dacascos.  I also realized a tiny tidbit about tri-corner hats.  When wearing a tri-corner, Americans look patriotic, the English look distinguished, but the French look absolutely badass (see below).  Additionally, the makeup is appropriately lovely or grotesque.  Favorite cosmetic applications include a villain’s scarred and withered arm, a wide diversity of 18th century wigs and some pretty intricate war paint.

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Locations and sets were absolutely gorgeous, from a full-fledged castle to peasant villages to untamed yet wildly beautiful countryside vistas.  The cinematography brilliantly captures the nuance of locations, gestures, weather and tone.  It’s also pre-shaky cam era so we’re spared the quick jittery vibrations and quick-cut editing that’s become so prevalent in film since the Bourne movies.  However, fight scenes are filmed with varying degrees of slow motion as Le pacte des loups was released post-Matrix.  These scenes are supplemented with some pretty impressive effects.  The most noticeable use of CG/puppet work is the beast itself, which is ever so noticeable to our CG-trained eyes.  However, it’s seamlessly crafted for a 2001 film and in no way detracts from the film-viewing experience.  The effects hold up extraordinarily well even today.

Today’s epic movies often have matching epic soundtracks.  Starting with John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith and continuing to the likes of Hans Zimmer and Klaus Bedelt, we often expect lush orchestral accompaniment and bombastic brass fanfares to accompany our major action/adventure pieces.  Joseph lo Duca decided to take the score of Le pacte des loups in a considerably different direction.  His score is smaller and smarter, less punch and more atmosphere.  Liberal use of steel-stringed guitar, Native American Indian flute, dulcimers and a chamber-sized string ensemble create a distinctly unique and otherworldly soundscape.  Subtle yet intense, it’s an absolutely perfect compliment to the rest of the film.

So I clearly seem to have loved Le pacte des loups.  Was there room for improvement anywhere?  Well, yes.  It’s long.  Way too long.  As in it probably could have been trimmed a good half hour.  This extra length does not consist of unwanted exposition or superfluous dialogue, it actually occurs during several of the film’s multitudinous fight scenes.  Though expertly choreographed and filmed, these scenes are far too long and often occur amongst characters that generate little emotional attachment.  In a movie with a great deal of motivation and subtext, needless action scenes are irritating at best and downright stupid at worst.

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Overall though, Le pacte des loups is an extremely enjoyable film.  A very well-acted horror/fantasy/historical fusion film with absolutely top-shelf production values, director Christophe Gans has created something to be proud of.  Significantly smarter, sleeker, sexier and more elegant than the majority of Hollywood action fantasies, Le pacte des loups brings a rare intelligence alongside the obligatory sex, gore and martial arts.  Portions of wanton fight sequences could have been cut, but the end result is a highly enjoyable foreign genre treat.  Easily an 8.5/10 in my book, Le pacte des loups deserves to be seen by a wide international audience.  Necca out.

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