Euro-Trash Vampires, Toothless Kung-Fu Serfs, and Cinematic Orientale Nouveau
Issue #61, September 2002
Age of Reason and Wolves
The current big-budget release French-subtitled film, Brotherhood of the Wolf (Universal Focus 2002) or Le Pacte des Loup, as it is known in France, revisits the French legend of the Beast of Gevaudan. The beast was allegedly responsible for the violent deaths of over 100 persons, mainly women and children, in the mid-18th century during the reign of King Louis XV. In the film directed by Christophe Gans, the Royal Court responds to these killings in the French countryside by sending Knight Gregoire de Fronsac (Samuel le Bihan), a renowned "naturalist", to find and capture the wolf they believe is responsible for the vicious killings. With the help of his "blood brother" Mani (played by Hawaiian martial artist Mark Dacascos), a Mohawk Indian from colonized Canada who is skilled in spiritual shaman techniques, de Fronsac sets out to hunt down the beast.
As a cinematic post(?)-colonial text, Brotherhood attempts to make a terse critique on how French colonial violence in Canada and in Africa is naturalized by a two-fold and recognizable trope: the savagization of non-Western peoples into either fierce or noble sub-humans who belong to the "amoral" chaos of Nature and who are in need of the "civilizing" powers of colonization. The general and seemingly liberal or "progressive" point that the film makes is that Western civilization lofted by the seemingly transcendental ideals of civility, rationality, and morality has been bankrupted by an unmitigated male violence (that is not seen as violence) against nature and her denizens, namely wolves and indigenous peoples. However, this romanticized and liberal gesture of condemning the "savagery" of colonialism and finger-wagging at the corrupt and arrogant French aristocracy and the preponderance of toothless, filthy and illiterate serfs in French society is undermined by its orientalist cinematic style, casting and plot motifs.
Le Pacte's fight scenes and overall visual sense, driven by a desire to be hip, stylish and hyper-kinetic in the post-Tarantino sense, continues the Hollywood and Parisian trend of co-opting the martial arts choreography of Hong Kong cinema. The best of Hong Kong cinema — where fighting bodies become graceful spectacles that bend time and space — before John Woo was corrupted by the sexual binarism and predictable morality of the Hollywood West, has its origins in the choreographic rigors of the opera training schools of Peking. However, the choreographed hyper-violence in Brotherhood's fight scenes becomes what I term neo-orientalist kitsch. For example, the first group fight scene shows dirty-faced French men, dressed in women's garb — to lure the beast who only attacks peasant women and children — practice sloppy simulations of Kung Fu stick fighting in the rainy French countryside. Laughable, yet these scenes are done without the intentional irony of such films as A Knight's Tale (starring Heath Ledger), where the joust scenes with crowd sing-alongs where scored to the music of Queen.
Although the kinetic telescopic editing of the "beast's" pursuit is visually captivating at first, it is disturbing to see how the mutilation of buxom peasant women is aestheticized, glamorized and normalized. In several scenes, the director's forward angling of the shots where women are the object of pursuit, together with the sound effects of the beast and other aural atmospherics, make the audience live the director's gaze through the pursuit. The brutal slaughter and evisceration of the wolves is also very painful to watch; and because of its realism, it is hard to believe that animals were not harmed during these scenes. The metaphorization of these killings with French colonial expansion and the killing of non-Western peoples functions well, especially in capturing French arrogance, disdain and thrill for the hunt.
However, the narrative tropes that bind the form of the film function on formulaic binaries. Mani, masquerading as a Cree-Mohawk, is paired with his "blood" brother, a French naturalist who has gone "native" but because of his knighthood becomes a type of border-crosser between the French colonial bourgeoisie and its colonized natives. Mani embodies all the stereotypes of the "noble savage" predominant in Westerns, the quiet "wise" man who makes the predictable palm-raised Tonto-like "hows" to the Lone Ranger white hero. When Mani is killed, Fronsac paints himself as a type of woodland warrior to avenge his death. When he transforms himself into a "white savage" with face paint, loincloth and tomahawk, he then is able to unleash the true "savagery" of extreme, intense and unrelenting violence with an orientalist twist. In a sense his "savage" costume allows his Id to come out and play; he is no longer bound by the Super-ego of civilization and its rule. Within the logic of the film he becomes nature, raw and unbridled.
The final showdown is between two French colonial male subjects who act out their simulations of non-Western peoples: Fronsac the white wannabe Cree, and Jean Francois (Vincent Cassel), a French nobleman's son who simulates a Congolese type of "cannibal." His body is somewhat withered by what they call "jungle rot" he caught in Africa. Their fight scene between the "good" and the "bad" savage is made even more ridiculous and offensive by their use of orientalized stick fighting and their clunky imitations of Crouching Tiger moves.
The beast, a CGI of medium-skill digital resolution, moves in the hyper-kinetic frames akin to the fight scenes of Ridley Scott's Gladiator. The beast is a literal colonialist construction based on the fantasies and fears of the Age of Reason concerning mythic beasts that will swallow Civilization. Its predatory and learned violence inadvertently metaphorizes the rage of unleashed violence of domination and consumption intrinsic to the operations of colonial power.
Decolonizing French Cinema
Although Gans's colonialist rubrics and orientalizing tendencies are problematic, to say the least, and undermine the liberal message of the film, recent trends in French cinema need to be applauded for pushing the envelope on sexuality and violence. Further, they have continued the subversive anti-bourgeois goals of New Wave cinema in new spaces of aesthetic hybridity. For example, the recent trend includes films that place women as the agents of their desire albeit violent and graphic, as seen in Romance (1999) and Intimacy (2000), which is based on a short story of famed postcolonial British writer Hanif Kureishi. Also, the controversial and iconoclastic Baise Moi (Fuck Me) (2000) starring two "real life" porn stars, which culminates in a scene of graphic gun sodomy and murder as revenge against rape and overall class rage, represents a collaboration between the Vietnamese Coralie Trinh-Thi and French Virginie Despentes.
Even Luc Besson's recent operatic urban thriller set in modern day Paris, Kiss of the Dragon, makes credible use of Asian fight choreography to maintain a stylish genre credibility. The cinematic fusion of Western urban action and Chinese fight operatics is further anchored by the charisma of mainland China real-life fighter and super-star Jet Li. He alternates between explosive fight acrobatics and the use of acupuncture needles that he takes from his wrist-band to calm, stop, and paralyze his opponents.
The Matrix, an interesting meditation on virtual reality, makes the orientalist co-optation of Asian fight opera aesthetics in Hollywood cinema most famous. The Matrix is the ultimate computer nerd revenge fantasy. In the logic of the film, we are all virtual beings engineered by corporate programmers. Those who challenge the codes are disciplined by anti-viral agents, white men with ear transmitters, dressed in cheap Armani suits, and who feel no pain. However, The Matrix appeals to those citizen-subjects who are the most privileged consumers of high-tech global capitalism. Its seemingly clever script on the interplay of the virtual vs. the real in fact offers a profound liberal escapist fantasy. The critical purchase made through the adrenaline rush of Asian-style hyper-violence is one that disavows any type of social action or agency. State, racial, sexual and imperialist violence are really just virtual violence. The bleeding bodies of those made abject by the state and its new global order are just a series of visually effective binary codes, and the hierarchic structure between consumer and producer is just a programming code.
The current release of Queen of the Damned continues the trend of cinematic hyper-violence in a pastiche of commercialized Goth culture that reveals Anne Rice's neocolonialist fear and fetish of Africa, Africans in the "new world", and her equation of blackness with primal and unbridled violence. On an extant level, Queen attempts to make a clever critique on the commercialization of Goth rock and the spectacle of concert violence by having the ancient master vampire, Lestat, re-awaken to become a top Goth rock cult figure. His music and its cryptic codes awaken Akasha (the late Aaliyah), the Nubian queen of all vampires who also ruled Ancient Egypt with despotic violence. The problematic trope that Rice constructs between African diasporic cultural power in New Orleans and the vampirism in the novel, Interview with a Vampire, which did not make it onto the film in any direct way, is fully developed in Queen with disturbing racial and colonialist repercussions.
When Akasha awakens, even though she is constructed as the mother of all vampires, she is perceived as a threat to the social order of dominant white Euro-covens; they prefer remaining in the shadows of Western civilization, surreptitiously feeding of their targets in dimly lit parks, alleyways and streets. Her ungrateful and white supremacist offspring constantly attack her. Older covens, many of aristocratic birth, span generations; they observe the march of colonialism and capitalism and live for the fulfillment of their hunger and needs. In a sense they are the ultimate consumers in the feeding chain of capitalism. At the pinnacle of social privilege, they bring subjects into their social circle and form alliances, much like upper-echelon CEOs.
When Lestat breaks the code and becomes a public figure, he fits the epitome of media lust and narcissism of many mega-star musicians who thrive on being the center of adulation cults. His groupies, who are young, drugged women, do not however live to tell the tale of their night of surrender. So when Akasha (the ancestral African queen of Egypt) awakens to claim Lestat as her new King, he is both enthralled and threatened by her sexual and creative force. The interplay of Lestat's whiteness with Akasha sets the key dramatic tension of the film where Lestat is able to enunciate his whiteness, colonial privilege and seek his redemption by resisting the "darkness" of the Queen. On a metaphoric level, his struggles with "darkness" as the "prince of darkness" are what White (Routledge, 1997) by Richard Dyer skillfully illuminates:
Dark desires are part of the story of whiteness, but as what the whiteness of whiteness has to struggle against. Thus it is that the whiteness of white men resides in the tragic quality of their giving way to darkness and the heroism of channeling or resisting it.
In the dénouement of the film, Lestat realizes he cannot possess or colonize Akasha and he refuses to surrender his male and white authority, so Akasha is set upon by Lestat and by a coven led by Maharet (Lena Olin). The coven maliciously destroys Akasha; they all encircle and feed from her in a scene of symbolic matricide, one that mirrors the literal violence of European colonization on African women's bodies. Maharet's genealogy of Euro-western power and tradition from the Old Country (eastern Europe) that is embossed as a tree on the wall must be protected at all costs. The film ends by restoring whiteness, Western control, and protection against miscegenation. The lineage of power among vampires continues.
The message becomes that, yes, on a metaphorical level they are descendents of African civilizations, but white people and their ways of polite and cultured violence are still superior to the primal blood of the "wretched of the earth."
Arturo J. Aldama is associate professor of Chicana/o Studies at Arizona State University and a member of the Bad Subjects Collective.