When Clint initially pitched Turkish Star Wars for Yakmala, he said the tagline of the film should be “wait, what?” His flawless reasoning: every scene kicks off with something completely inexplicable. Even better, no one in the film seems to understand that they exist in this delirious fugue state, reacting to utter insanity like it’s the most normal thing in the world. “Oh no, you whistled wrong and now skeletons are attacking!” “We need to cross over the space speed.” And of course: “The earth is safe beneath its crust of protective brain molecules.” The sensation that anything can happen is exhilarating and for good or for bad, you have to applaud a movie who barely harnesses wild creativity into a mostly coherent story. And when that’s all based on a true story, you get the 2001 French film Brotherhood of the Wolf.
From 1764 to 1767 the Gevaudan area of France was terrorized by a large and unidentified monster. The creature, because of a criminal lack of creativity in pre-Revolutionary France, became known as the Beast of Gevaudan and was famous for preferring human meat to animal, often ignoring sheep and cattle to get at the tasty shepherds. Described as wolflike, it was supposed to be faintly reddish, smelly, and in some stories sported cloven hooves. The crown sent in hunters, until one, Jean Chastel, killed the Beast with a silver bullet. Cryptozoologists have suggested a surviving Mesonychid as the culprit, which is an excellent hypothesis if there was even a shred of evidence for one surviving into the modern era. Modern middle-aged women assume it to be a werewolf, and hope he has cut-offs and rock hard abs. At the time, it was assumed to be a manifestation of the Devil, and the little details like reddish fur, stench, and hooves were added by superstitious and frightened witnesses. In all probability the beast (or beasts) was a feral wolf-dog hybrid, combining a wolf’s cunning with a dog’s fearlessness of man.
The story begins with this question mark hanging over the heroes. Dispatched from Paris with orders from the king are Sir Gregoire de Fronsac, the royal taxidermist (which used to be a thing I guess), and his Native American sidekick Mani. These guys seem like normal folks riding out of the rain until they happen upon a group of tough guys in drag beating up a local healer and his daughter, who might or might not be a witch. This utterly baffling set up does actually get explained later on, but it’s the merest taste of the madness to come. Mani proceeds to get off his horse and beats up the transvestites. With karate. I’m serious. Mani goes full on Bruce Lee on these guys. Like he suddenly invented the Matrix and teleported everyone there for the duration of a single sublime ass-beating.
This is an ongoing theme of the film as it bounces between three major genres. While de Fronsac navigates the aristocratic minefield that was pre-revolutionary France, it is a costume drama about his romancing of minor noble Marianne Morangias. When he’s off in the woods hunting the beast, or when the beast is preying on innocent sheperdesses, it’s a creature feature. And when Mani and Fronsac need to open a colossal can of whoop ass, it’s Kung Fu Theater. For those willing to be like, “Yeah, sure, a French knight and a Mohawk medicine man have black belts, whatever,” the film is intoxicating, more about what the medium can do than what it should.
This is not to suggest Brotherhood of the Wolf is perfect film. The biggest knock against it is running time, ballooning to 142 minutes, which is about 42 minutes too goddamn long. There is quite a bit of cinematic fat to be trimmed, although one of the least important characters, Monica Bellucci’s courtesan/agent of the Vatican, is also the most fun. And yes, this does mean Bellucci spends a portion of her screentime topless and in complicated lingerie. Yes, this adds a full star to the rating of any film. I’m pretty sure Mark Dacascos prancing around in a loincloth does much the same for the other team.
The most jarring aspect in viewing this time around was the film’s use of slow motion. What was at the time groundbreaking, a fast-slow-fast approach to action in order to highlight bone-crunching hits, has been raped into submission by people like Zach Snyder, who can’t film a character parallel parking without slowing it down so we see every. Last. Shift. I just had to remind myself that it wasn’t completely cliche at the time and leave it there. Also dated is the film’s CGI. Fortunately, the director wisely shoots around the Beast as much as possible, giving us only glimpses until the latter half.
The film has an admirable sense of history that would probably be absent in a similar American film. You know, if any American studio had the brass gonads to make anything as unabashedly weird as this. It opens in the middle of the Reign of Terror, as de Fronsac ally and crossbow enthusiast Thomas d’Apcher (played by someone named Jeremie Renier, who is apparently a different person than Jeremy Renner) writes the account of the Beast while waiting to feed himself to the mob. De Fronsac’s backstory includes a stint in New France during the Seven Years War (known to Americans by the confusing moniker The French and Indian War), where he hooked up with Kung Fu Indian Mani. I am a sucker for this period of history. The weaponry, the costumes, pretty much everything. It’s a period that often goes ignored in genre fiction in favor of the sexier Dark Ages, the Wild West, or plain old modern day, yet it’s the perfect time to show a world walking the tightrope of reason over the depths of superstition.
No small part of my love is because the film comes down squarely on the side of reason. De Fronsac is a naturalist, and convinced throughout the film that there is a perfectly reasonable explanation for the Beast. In an American film, this hubris, to even dream that sanity and logic could ever be the right way to go, would be shown to be wrong and the monster would have supernatural (likely infernal) origins. Far from being Satan, the Beast is a trained and armored animal in the service of a splinter group of Christians. The Beast is the tool of the powerful to frighten the superstitious into blind ignorance.
Love it or hate it, there’s no other movie quite like Brotherhood of the Wolf. It’s a kung fu creature feature costume drama with something fairly important to say. And it has topless Monica Bellucci and Mark Dacascos. They’re seriously pretty people.