In 1764 France a creature that would be later called “The Beast of Gévaudan” terrorized the populace for several years, racking up over a hundred kills and even more injuries, until King Louis XV sent two professional wolf-hunters to take care of the problem. This is one of those true stories that is so incredible that one immediately thinks how awesome a movie of this would be. Lucky for us director Christoph Gans had the same sentiment so in 2001 he brought to the screen Brotherhood of the Wolf a spectacularly beautiful version of the story only his take on the tale would have an added bonus in that his account would tell the “never before told true story” behind the events of this 18th century legend. And just how can one improve on such a tale? Well for starters you include kung fu heroes, a conspiracy to undermine the crown, Vatican spies, and a menacing monster straight of a Brothers Grimm story. What’s not to love?
Taking place a few years prior to the French Revolution Brotherhood of the Wolf introduces us to Grégoire de Fronsac (Samuel Le Bihan), a knight and royal naturalist to King Louis XV, and his Native American companion Mani (Mark Dacascos), an Iroquois warrior/priest who is basically Kato to Fronsac’s Green Hornet, who have been sent by the King to capture or kill a beast that has been plaguing Gévaudan and the surrounding town. To establish our heroes as badasses the film has them encounter a group of men beating up an old man and his daughter, so Mani dismounts and proceeds to kick the living crap out of these guys.
This opening action scene may lead viewers to believe that they are about to watch a period action film but that is not really the case, though the film does have several amazing fight sequences it’s really more a period mystery piece than it is an action film. Much of the film’s two and a half hour running time deals with Fronsac and Mani going to lavish dinner engagements, joining hunting parties to find the wolf that though useless in finding the beast does allow Fronsac time to flirt with the beautiful and innocent Marianne de Morangias (Émilie Dequenne) the daughter of a local count. And when he’s not chatting up young innocent girls he’s hanging out at the local brothel where he finds himself intrigued by the mysterious Sylvia (Monica Bellucci) who is an Italian courtesan that may know more of what’s going on than anybody else.
Director Christoph Gans creates a bleak and oppressive atmosphere as our heroes try to uncover the truth behind these supposed wolf attacks; Fronsac initially being skeptical about the beast’s existence because the few survivors describe it as much larger than any wolf he has ever seen, and a metal claw being found at one of the scenes of carnage also lends credence that it may not be an animal they are looking for at all.
But the creature is not the only threat Fronsac faces as he must also deal with Jean-François (Vincent Cassel) the jealous brother of Marianne who lost his arm to a lion attack while hunting in Africa, and then there is Father Henri Sardis (Jean-François Stévenin) who is suspicious of Mani’s savage practices. When the hunt and Fronsac fail to provide results the King sends in weapons master, a cold calculating bastard by the name of Lord de Beauterne (Johan Leysen) who isn’t actually there to catch the beast but instead orders Fronsac to use his taxidermy skills to create a feasible beast to show off in Paris. It turns out that the King is getting a lot of heat because of an anonymously published book that claims the beast’s attacks are God’s punishment for the King’s indulgence in philosophers and his modern embrace of science over religion.
The film is a visual feast with cinematographer Dan Laustsen and production designs by Guy-Claude François giving us a French countryside that is both at once beautiful as it is dark and dangerous with the scenes of Fronsac, Mani and the young Marquis d’Apcher (Hans Meyer) tracking the beast through the dense forests of Gévaudan does at times seem something straight out of a Gustave Doré illustration. Brotherhood of the Wolf also include one of the best optical dissolve in the history of film as we go from Monica Belluci’s naked breasts to the rolling snow covered hills of France. The action sequences are also just good; from Fronsac and Mani’s brilliant traps, sadly none quite good enough to stop the monster, to Fronsac’s finally showdown with those truly behind the trail of death and terror in a simply spectacular fashion.
I don’t want to get any further into spoiler territory, this being a mystery and I’d hate to ruin any of the surprises for you, but I will say that though some of the villains here are less surprising than others the nature of the beast is quite ingenious. The biggest criticism I have towards the film is that when we finally get clear shots of said beast the animatronic version of it looks great, the live action puppet is brilliant, but when we get the CGI rendered version of the monster it looks less than convincing even by 2001 standards.
Christoph Gan’s Brotherhood of the Wolf is an amazing film on multiple levels, as mentioned the look of the film is simply gorgeous, with costuming ranging from damn cool to simply exquisite, the fight choreography is fantastic and the cast across the board all give great performances. This movie may not be the “true” story of The Beast of Gévaudan but after watching it you will most likely wish it was.
Note: The film’s first kill is a young woman being savaged by the beast as she tries to escape up a rock is a clear homage (or rip-off) of Chrissy’s death in Steven Spielberg’s Jaws.