Beleaguered ‘Wolf’ lacks bite

The makers of “Brotherhood of the Wolf” have attempted a vast film of action, monsters, magic, intrigue and slow-motion fight sequences. While this attempt is truly commendable, as few films today dare to take such risks, the result is undoubtedly a failure. The film falls short of these multiple goals over the course of a painful two-and-a-half hours. “Brotherhood of the Wolf,” a French film subtitled in English, opened at Images Cinema on April 5 and plays throughout the week.

The film is set in 1764 in the French province of Gavaudan, where a ferocious beast is attacking villagers. Although the Beast is at first thought to be a wolf, an opening sequence wherein a woman is brutally beaten against a rock by an unseen attacker suggests otherwise. Enter Sir Gregoire de Fronsac (Samuel Le Bihan), naturalist and soldier, and his Mohawk-Iroquois sidekick, Mani (Mark Dacascos). The two attempt to gather information on the Beast as massive hunts are organized to kill it. After three months during which the Beast eludes the hunters, the King sends in the army, and Fronsac is forced to take part in a plan of propaganda and cover-up. However, the hunt is not over for Fronsac, Mani and the Marquis of Gavaudan, Thomas (Jeremie Renier, who also serves as the film’s narrator), and the three return to the woods for a hunt sequence reminiscent of Schwarzenegger’s “Predator.”

In these first two acts there exists a tension between the film’s construction as an epic historical romance and as a simpler action movie, which only builds as the film continues. As a romance, the film never convinces the audience of the love between Fronsac and Marianne (Emilie Dequenne), his young aristocratic love interest, and seems more interested in exotic portrayals of a local brothel and its inhabitants than this love story. As a “history,” the film begins to claim that it is conscious of the popular stereotypes of Native Americans among the French, but goes on to enact the “noble savage” concept in Mani, who paints his face and goes into battle with a loincloth and tomahawk in his final hunt. The action sequences are exciting, but the director uses tricks choreographically and cinematically reminiscent of “The Matrix” instead of creating his own original vocabulary of action.

The film does itself a particular disservice by using variable speeds for every action sequence, an effect common to kung-fu movies and, of course, “The Matrix.” Not only does this offer a glorified and senseless portrayal of the violence, but it often includes an overuse of slow-motion, creating a comic rather than dramatic effect. In one sequence where a woman is about to be attacked by the Beast, the shots even pause at moments, pulling the viewer entirely out of the film’s events by making him aware of the movie’s artificiality.

“Brotherhood” draws on many cinematic sources, a few of which have already been mentioned. However, it fails to utilize the true strengths of each genre. Serial killer films, such as “Silence of the Lambs” and “The Cell,” are referenced in the initial search for the Beast, but the horror of those situations is only contrived here. The conspiracy theories have resonance with “The X-Files,” but “The X-Files” gains its dramatic power because of the possibility that it could be happening “now,” while “Brotherhood” is distanced by continent, time and the fantasy elements of the film. The final hunt for the Beast by the trio of men is a masculine enterprise reminiscent of “Jaws,” but the preparation and posturing of these three men are totally devoid of the humor of “Jaws,” which made that film both entertaining to watch and realistic. This difference is dramatized in a scene where the men have target practice with pumpkins, which, of course, explode in slow motion, splattering their pumpkin guts everywhere. These characters seem to entirely lack the ability to laugh at their own displays of prowess and manhood.

Wit is predominantly absent from “Brotherhood,” and this film in particular might have benefited from a sense of humor about itself. As the plot twists become more and more fantastic and contrived over the course of the film, an ability to laugh at itself instead of reveling in the situation’s gravity with slow motion might have made the film, and particularly its ending, more bearable.

The main problem with the ending is a few extremely disturbing and disappointing choices which defy the characterizations created earlier in the film. Fronsac, in the final act of the film, is transformed into a stealthy killing machine, a far cry from his bookish nature earlier when he relied on Mani for slow-motion action. Marianne’s brother is also transformed from a somewhat complicated and ambivalent character, who mocks Fronsac in one scene yet saves Mani’s life with a deftly aimed gunshot at an attacker in the next, into a macabre villain with intentions of rape and incest. And a mysterious Italian prostitute named Sylvia (Monica Bellucci) is revealed to be both an experienced killer and the expository link needed for the audience to begin to understand and wade through the extent of the French conspiracy.

A quote from Images’ advertisement for “Brotherhood” from critic Michael Atkinson calls it “easily the most disarming and inventive movie made for genre geeks in years.” This statement seems to say that those who enjoy the action or fantasy genres should settle for sub-par characters and unbelievable plots. This film does not warrant that kind of praise or exception.

If a film assaults its audience with violence, sex and disturbing imagery of gore (which caused some members of the audience to walk out during a sequence depicting the embalming of a wolf) then there must be something more than a contrived story of romance and evil behind this graphic display. However, the elements of humor, heart and character were noticeably absent from “Brotherhood of the Wolf.” If you are interested in seeing a good action film then rent “Crouching Tiger,” of which “Brotherhood” looks like a sad imitation.