Brotherhood of the Wolf
Directed by Christophe Gans
Reviewed by Arturo J. Aldama
Sunday, March 3 2002, 12:51 PM
Brotherhood of the Wolf (or Le Pacte des Loup as it is known in France) revisits the French legend of the Beast of Gevaudan. This 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 (played by 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 skilled in spiritual shaman techniques, de Fronsac sets out to hunt the beast down.
As a post-colonial text, Brotherhood depicts how French colonial violence in Canada and in Africa is naturalized by a two-fold trope: the savagization of non-Westerners 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's seemingly transcendental ideals of civility, rationality, and morality is bankrupted by an unmitigated male 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 a post-Tarantinoesque 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 bent time and space before John Woo was corrupted by the sexual conventions and predictable morality of Hollywood 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 a type of 'neo-orientalist kitsch.' For example the first group fight scene shows dirty faced French men, dressed in female garb (to lure the beast who only attacks peasant women and children) practicing sloppy simulations of Kung Fu stick fighting in the rainy French county side in the mid-18th Century. Laughable, yet these scenes are done without the intentional irony of such films as The Knights Tale (starring Heath Ledger) where the joust scenes with crowd sing-alongs were scored to the music of Queen.
Although the editing of the "beast's" pursuit is visually captivating at first, it is disturbing to see how the pursuit and mutilation of buxom, dirty-faced peasant women is glamorized. In several scenes, the director's forward angling of the shots where the women are the object of the pursuit, the sounds of the beast and other aural atmospherics make the audience participate in the pursuit of the beast. The brute slaughter and evisceration of 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 somewhat well, especially the arrogance, disdain and the thrill of the hunt felt by the French. 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 and he is no longer bound the "super-ego" of civilization and its rule. Within the logic of the film he becomes nature: raw and unbridled.
The final show down is between two French colonial male subjects who act out their simulations of non-Western peoples: Fronsac the white wannabe Cree; and Jean Francois, a French noblemen's son played by Vincent Cassel, who simulates a Congolese "cannibal." His body is somewhat withered by a "jungle rot" that he caught when he was 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 the Ridley Scott Gladiator, making its appearance and revealing its genesis towards the end of the film. The beast is again an explicitly colonialist construction based on the fantasies and fears of the Age of Reason; a mythical, savage other that will swallow Civilization. Its predatory and learned violence inadvertently metaphorizes the rage of domination and consumption intrinsic to the operations of colonial power.
Although Gans' colonialist worldview and orientalizing tendencies are problematic, recent trends in French cinema need to be applauded for pushing the envelope on sexuality and violence and continuing the subversive anti-bourgeois goals of new wave cinema in new spaces of aesthetic hybridity. These recent trends includes films that place women as the agents of their desire, such as 1999's Romance , and 2000's Intimacy which is based on a short story of famed postcolonial British writer Hanif Kureishi. Also, the controversial and iconoclastic 2000 film Baise Moi (Kiss Me) starring two "real life" porn stars, which culminates in a scene of graphic gun sodomy and murder as revenge against rape, 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, employs stylishly credible Asian fight choreography. The cinematic fusion of western urban action and Chinese fight operatics is further anchored by the charisma of mainland China's 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 wristband to calm, stop, and paralyze his opponents.