Wednesday, December 18, 2002

Brotherhood of the Wolf / **** (2002)

The French must know a lot more about cinema than we have ever given them credit for, particularly judging by the most recent products from their soils that have found an audience here across the Atlantic. The new millennium opened to the arrival of the rich and comedic "The Taste of Others," while the delightfully-vivid character study "Amelie" from last year provoked the curious eye almost as much as it exhilarated the viewer's spirit. The secret to the success of these two particular endeavors, and perhaps as it has always been with moviemaking in the country, is about stretching the cultural barriers beyond their own, embracing both French fundamentals as well as those of other civilizations to package an effort both rich and diverse in its techniques and legacies. It can even be argued that French movies aren't entirely French anymore, but Asian, American, Italian, British, and Indian as well.

Christophe Gans' "Brotherhood of the Wolf" takes a colossal leap at that opportunity, melding all sorts of different genres, visual styles, scripting techniques, plot gimmicks, characterizations and story arcs like it were collecting souvenirs on a tourist's excursion through the northern hemisphere. What's quite remarkable about the result, at least other than the basic effort to use every element it can in 140 minutes, is how well the movie is made without seeming overly worked or lazy in the process. This isn't a product that requires time to adapt to all the techniques tossed into the court, either, because it masters a balanced pattern almost as swiftly as the characters sail through their dialogue. It's a stylish, smart, edgy, exciting and profoundly involving trek though familiar folklore, often better than the masses have been told and even more appealing after repeat viewings.

The picture opens on an isolated segment of French countryside in 1765, where the residents of a remote village have retreated to mass seclusion following the mysterious slayings of a few unlucky townsfolk. The fact that the killings happen period is enough to unnerve their peaceful community, but the style and manner in which they happen only deepens the fear and tension. In fact, as visualized during the film's rather creepy opening sequence, it also becomes apparent that the source of mayhem could be more than just something of nature's creation.

Enter Grégoire de Fronsac (Samuel Le Bihan), a naturalist—and sometimes taxidermist—who has been assigned by the French officials to investigate the bizarre yet disturbing slayings in the area. Joining him on his investigation is Mani (Mark Dacascos), a generally silent native who learns more about the conflict from the calls of wild animals than his superior does from local authorities. For a good while in the beginning, their inspections of human remains and death sites turn up little evidence to spur their semi-intrigued minds, but when the slaughtering resumes activity during their stay and witnesses claim to have seen a ferocious beast causing the mayhem, they take their investigation beyond previous restrictions and begin to uncover something previously scarce. What do they actually start to uncover, though? Ah, but to reveal anything further about that mystery would be to severely undermine the delicious conspiracy that the script has devised for us.

"Brotherhood of the Wolf," as previously mentioned, adopts a wide selection of production values from nearly every feasible slice of cinema it can, but seldom has there been a product nearly as effective at doing so, especially when it clearly identifies where the borrowed traits originated. Nearly every scene and visual technique can be matched with an exact ascendant—the premise oozes with the "Beowulf" reference, while the camera tricks make obvious use of the bullet-time animation of "The Matrix"—and yet it isn't a labored gesture in the least; in fact, it utilizes its sources to such a unique and thorough level that there is never a necessity to challenge the exertion. One of the early scenes in which the Mani character faces off against local hoodlums in slow motion is a fitting example, as he leaps from his horse, plows through the rain puddles, and wields his unique weaponry at them, the sounds of the clanking and thrusting pounding in the background as his acrobatic body defies the laws of gravity.Few will deny that they have seen all these things before, but will they be able to deny the infectious thrill of seeing them again?

Almost as much as the picture borrows ingredients, however, it also exhibits an original and rather creative scope in terms of characterization. Gans' players, ranging not just from the heroes but to the conspicuous low-lives who pollute both ends of the French society, nearly leap their way off of the screen using their vivid personalities as trampolines. Members of the supporting cast aren't merely spectators to the plot, either; they occupy their own space like spirited participants ready to face any danger that passes them. It's hard enough for a screenplay to exhibit any amount of faith in several of the minor roles, but when the audience begins to accept them beyond just being secondary, it's obvious that the film has struck a rare and special chord.

The movie, naturally, doesn't go for an ounce of credibility as a narrative—one friend described the plot perfectly when he called it "exciting trash"—but that's a completely irrelevant point in the long run. This isn't a movie about convincing story arcs to begin with, but about the approach—and payoff—that they are able to derive as a result. And when it comes to the thrill of the visual, the imagination, the detail and the persona, "Brotherhood of the Wolf" accomplishes a great deal more than just any ordinary package.

Written by DAVID KEYES

Samuel Le Bihan: Grégoire de Fronsac
Mark Dacascos: Mani
Vincent Cassel: Jean-François de Morangias
Émilie Dequenne: Marianne de Morangias
Monica Bellucci: Sylvia
Jérémie Rénier: Thomas d'Apcher
Jean Yanne: Le Comte de Morangias

Produced by Richard Grandpierre and Samuel Hadida; Directed by Christophe Gans; Screenwritten by Stéphane Cabel and Christophe Gans

Drama/Thriller/ Mystery/Action (France); Rated R for strong violence and gore, and sexuality/nudity; Running Time - 142 Minutes (overseas cuts vary)

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