“Spectacular,” according to Webster’s, means “of or like a spectacle; marked by or given to an impressive, large-scale display” or “dramatically daring or thrilling.” Brotherhood of the Wolf seems to ambitiously leap toward this adjective. But, like a daredevil who’s attempted to jump one vehicle too many, the thrill of a boasted victory crashes into the agony of defeat.
The pain may be all yours if you gamble your ticket price at your local art theater (yes, those subtitle-friendly places that serve gourmet popcorn and bottled water) with the hope of winning more than a few moments of cinematic satisfaction out of nearly two-and-a-half subtitled hours of gothic horror redux. Expect a buffet of misogyny, court-conspiracy theory, flat period-costume romance, racist colonial adventure and Hong Kong-styled kung fu fighting — all stretched between the gilded framing device of an account by one of the principals, Thomas d’Apcher (Jacques Perrin, Cinema Paradiso), that spans from the reign of Louis XV to the French Revolution.
You could think of the Beast of Gévaudan as 18th century France’s Jack the Ripper. In 1764, a plague of disappearances begins to grip the countryside of Lozère. Horrible and frequent discoveries of the mutilated remains of more than 100 of the lost — mostly women and children — finally rouse d’Apcher to organize an allegedly successful hunt for the Beast — and inspire legend. Though d’Apcher’s party bags a wolf in 1767, perhaps the functionaries of the Catholic Church are loath to pass up the opportunity of the best bogeyman since Saint George’s dragon; so the Beast becomes a demon — perhaps even the devil himself — far too large for a hunter’s sack.
The former popularity of TV’s “The X Files” testifies that conspiracy theories function as the myths of today’s pop culture: They explain the inexplicable, the improbable — or just make the mundane sensational. Brotherhood, like the most recent, grisly cinematic take on the Jack the Ripper murders, From Hell (2001), points a finger and shouts, “J’accuse” at a secret society and royalty, implicating them for the body count.
But as heady a brew as any concocted conspiracy can be, it doesn’t necessarily travel well. The inquiring minds of the masses motivate the making of a myth. Many people worldwide would like to know the secrets of the Ripper, but the Beast of Gévaudan is a horror tale mostly restricted to the flickering circles of French campfires. On these shores, it’s all up to The Brotherhood to whet our appetites for flesh and blood.
And maybe it will, if you habitually belly-up to the bar of the sado-porn striptease show that is recent B-movie horror. If you don’t know the dance, these are the steps: Start with the screams and futile struggles of your first pathetic (read female for most of the body count) victim. Slowly entice by flashing more and more explicit peeps of flesh, blood and guts, and the monster. And finally show the money shot: the monster and all of its horrors in full view.
Writer-director Christophe Gans knows the moves and first showed them in “The Drowned,” the first segment of H.P. Lovecraft’s Necronomicon (1994). Perhaps if he had kept it simple, sticking to the routine, he might have made a monster flick that at least satisfied the genre’s conventions and its fans’ expectations.
But Gans evidently got seriously ambitious. First he opens Brotherhood as a costumed period drama of courtly romance and intrigue, with d’Apcher inscribing the events in his memoir, setting us up for something more like Patrice Chéreau’s Queen Margot than a gore fest. He knocks off some of the major elements: the dashing hero, the beautiful lady and the treacherous whore. Enter the handsome Chevalier Grégoire de Fronsac (Samuel Le Bihan, Red), adventurer, naturalist — and amateur taxidermist. He romances the pretty and chaste Marianne de Morangias (Emilie Dequenne, Rosetta) while spending the lust she inspires on a mysterious Italian prostitute, Sylvia (Monica Bellucci, Malèna). With the addition of Mariane’s brother, Jean-François (Vincent Cassel, Hate), as the damaged, sadistic and incestuously amorous villain, Brotherhood could manage to be a gothic horror flick. But Gans can’t leave well enough alone.
The chevalier has returned from “New France” (the Canadian colonies) with his “blood brother,” a Mohawk named Mani (Mark Dacascos, TV’s “The Crow: Stairway to Heaven”). Mani is a walking amalgam of noble savage stereotypes, from the warrior Indian shamans of the West to the inscrutable and deadly Shaolin monks of the Far East. Gans and co-writer Stéphane Cabel, with unwitting irony, attempt to use their Indian, a racist construct, as a foil to the racism of 18th century French nobility.
Mani’s character introduces the one genre that breaks Brotherhood of the Wolf’s back: martial arts. Gans and company ask us to believe that Mani, the chevalier, Jean-François and his henchmen, and even a pair of stereotypically hot-blooded Gypsy women (complete with smoldering, bedroom eyes), have somehow developed motley kung fu skills. Each blow mauls the movie’s credibility, conflicting with the seriousness of its attempted drama and political intrigue.
To make matters worse, Gans has employed David Wu, the editor of director John Woo’s classic Hong Kong gun operas, Hard Boiled and A Better Tomorrow, to cut his action scenes. Wu plays with time as if it were Silly Putty, gratuitously stretching it to the breaking point of freeze frame and snapping it into hyper-kinetic motion.
After the real-life horror of squirming in my seat through Brotherhood’s interminable 148 minutes (only 10 minutes shorter than the Ali epic), I was asked, by a fellow reviewer, the question the studio should have asked Gans: “Who was he making this movie for?” Will the Francophile and Merchant and Ivory sets suffer the violence, gore and hyped-up action? Will the horror and martial arts crowd endure a subtitled epic? Or will this picture crash and burn at the box office attempting to hyphenate one conflicting genre too many?
The actual story behind Brotherhood of the Wolf may be that of an overambitious French boy and his $27 million dog.
E-mail James Keith La Croix at [email protected].