French movies get a lot of stick for their nearly American levels of self-centeredness, sense of artistic superiority, willingness to swipe from other countries’ artistic traditions without thanking them for it, and for just plain thumbing their nose at anybody who isn’t willing to put their concerns aside and try something new and/or weird. But for those who can get with that program, French cinema can be as fun as it is bewildering, especially French action movies, which have long tapped into a deep reservoir of kinetic thrills that takes no prisoners, pulls no punches, and has zero concern if you can understand any of it. And within that fraternity of filigreed guilty pleasures stands one movie that, since its release has stood as a high benchmark for what it means to throw every narrative ingredient plus the kitchen sink into a movie and make something wonderful out of it. And that movie is the historical drama-thriller-swashbuckler-horror-romance-martial arts-whatever else epic, Brotherhood of the Wolf.
The story takes place a few decades before the French Revolution, where terror reigns over the province of Gévaudan. There, a horrific beast prowls the countryside, slaughtering people at will. The King summons his naturalist and renowned knight, Grégoire de Fronsac, to return from French Canada, investigate the scene and put and end to the beast. Accompanied by the Iriquois warrior Mani and the young Marquis d’Apcher, Fronsac descends into a deep well of mystery, conspiracy and palace intrigue as his hunt for the Beast of Gévaudan introduces him to the lovely Marienne de Morangias, daughter of the Gévaudan’s ruling family, and Sylvia, a sinister and seductive Italian courtesan residing in town. But Fronsac also senses abject danger as he watches how the entire countryside seethes with revolutionary anger over the presence of an unstoppable monster in its midst. While unrestrained wolf hunts produce dozens of dead animals, the human victims don’t stop piling up, and soon Fronsac realizes he might have more than one monster on his hands. For all of the skills he and his friends have with swords, guns, fists and feet, not to mention a quickness of wit and an excess of charisma, none of that may be enough when it comes to destroying the true evil that grows from within the heart of Gévaudan. And, perhaps, the rest of France…
Reviewing this movie is a bit like writing about being shot into space; one never truly understands the discussion unless they have experienced it directly. But for those still seeking external validation to see what this movie is all about, know this: Brotherhood of the Wolf is a supreme triumph of style moreso than substance, of overstuffed plot and sumptuous visuals, of double standards and of a devil-may-care attitude toward the very notion of historical accuracy. But all of that is okay, because deep down, this movie is a crazy genre-mashup B-flick wrapped in A-flick trappings. It knows it taps unsubstantiated legend to create an even more fanciful myth, and it knows that kung-fu Native Americans really aren’t a thing, and it knows that its vision of pre-Revolutionary France won’t stand up to scrutiny. It knows all of these things, and yet it still gives an A+ effort to create an impossible chimera out of so many different genres and narrative elements. Even for those who feel that the whole is less than the sum of its parts, there is still cause to nod respectfully towards those who dared to try.
But against all odds, this movie does work, largely because it’s just so entertaining that it never really gives us the time and inclination to stop and try to parse everything we’re seeing. By the time we are done absorbing what appears to be a werewolf attack in broad daylight, we’re on to a kung-fu fight between peoples who have no reason to know kung fu. And from there it’s on to every other kind of eye-popping diversion until we’re two hours in and starting to regret that pretty soon the credits are going to roll. Not too many movies succeed in pulling in an audience into such a fabricated landscape compiled of otherwise recognizable elements. But Brotherhood of the Wolf does. Now, any movie this ambitious—and especially in the ways in which it is ambitious—is going to have a few warts to it. Fronsac’s virgin/whore complex probably played better in France back in 2001 than it does not in 2019, for example. But there are no sins this movie commits that we can’t really forgive. Not when all of the sudden a monster comes through the wall of a country house like a wrecking ball, or sword fights involve whirling chains of bone and steel that defy physics, or secret agent interventions from the Vatican.
The moment of truth in this one is the movie’s second scene, when we first meet Fronsac and Mani. It directly follows an opening sequence in which we witness the largely unseen beast of Gévaudan slaughter a comely young shepherd girl. It’s the kind of scene that establishes for us what kind of evil our heroes are supposed to oppose. And what kind of heroes might those be? As we then see, they are the last heroes we might expect: two martial arts badasses in leather longboats and tricorns who seem to emerge from a universe unique to themselves. Their introduction—in which we get to watch them administer an unholy beatdown on a gang of peasants who really have it coming—is the kind of scene that grabs our attention because of how well it is staged, and for how out of left field it is. It is the kind of fight scene that instructs us to sit back and get ready for anything. If only more movies had such courage. Vive la France.