Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Wider Reading | Brotherhood of the Wolf

Mainstream French cinema, in my admittedly limited experience, isn’t fun. No, no – put that turkey baster away and let me explain. Truffaut isn’t fun. Godard isn’t fun. Manon de Sources isn’t fun. Au Revoir Les Enfants isn’t fun. Last Year at Marienbad isn’t fun. Amelie isn’t fun, but that’s because it’s cloying dreck. Haute Tension was neither clever nor fun. These films can be thoroughly engaging, brilliant, comedic, heart-warming, soul-destroying, even entertaining in a variety of off-kilter ways…but fun? I mean, even to start to think about ‘fun’, you’d have to go to the period stuff – Ridicule, Le Bossu, Cyrano de Bergerac…and even those have a restraining stateliness to them.

You’re almost certainly screaming abuse at me, specifically concerning my obvious lack of in-depth knowledge and my sweeping generalisations about a field I clearly don’t understand. But, fortunately, it’s the Internet and I can’t hear you, so I’m going to talk about werewolf mythology.

Pictured: History.

It was always werewolves for me. Partly because vampires, when I was growing up, had managed a few feeble struggles towards dignity in the form of Near Dark and The Lost Boys, but were now hopelessly uncool, still years before they’d be dragged out onto the stage, Susan Boyle-like, and forced to participate in teenage romances. Whereas werewolves had never been cool. But it was also because…well…what are vampires supposed to represent, exactly? MumblemumblesomethingaboutsexSTDsmumblemumble. Werewolves, to the childish mind, were very simple; inside every man there is a beast. I could understand that.

And the Beast of Gevaudan, to fans of relatively modern werewolf myths, is a sheer delight of history. A strange, wolf-like beast (or possibly several) terrorised a stretch of rural France for three years in the 18th century, tearing out peasants’ throats. It was finally shot – as later romantics claimed, with a silver bullet – by a suspicious fellow by the name of Jean Chastel, who’s been accused ever since of having actually been the creature’s master, even by that bastion of fact against superstition, the History Channel, which concluded that the Beast may have been an Asian hyena. Right…

Le Pacte des Loups, perhaps a movie which I have more affection for than any other, takes this set-up and moulds it into an adaptation of Hound of the Baskervilles, in which Holmes is Chevalier Gregoire de Fronsac, an arse-kicking naturalist sent by the King, and Watson is Mani, a mystical Native American martial artist who can communicate with wolves. Monica Belluci also appears as a prostitute with the gift of second sight, who’s actually a deadly all-Catholic assassin and spy investigating the Beast under the Pope’s orders.

More History!

It’s very peculiar, and not just because of the mush of characters I’ve described to you above; it’s an obvious blockbuster that moves in all the wrong directions for a blockbuster. The pacing is all off, beginning slow and ponderous, with plenty of court intrigue and detective work only enlivened by the occasional gratuitous ninja fight. There’s also far too much time and care devoted to its love-triangle subplot for an action movie, including a marvellous, semi-obligatory brothel bit in which Miss Belluci’s breasts fade out into snow-covered mountains. There are nudges towards a larger theme about the rise of the Enlightenment, the oncoming Revolution and the last death throes of the religious and aristocratic rule over the common man. All of this is carried out against a lush, misty backdrop and with occasionally wonderful, over-exuberant use of slow-motion.

Then Fronsac and Mani leave. Then they’re called back. Then the film goes insane. The pace just about doubles. We’re treated to a rapid succession of fight scene after fight scene, becoming ever more acrobatic, exciting and bloody daft, equally daft plot twists are pulled out of the hat every five minutes…

…and then up pops a rather sad, offbeat framework ending, followed by one of those ‘repeating the title at the end of the film which suggests that the director thought it would take on a new significance for his/her audience.’ It really doesn’t.

Leonard Maltlin, who disliked Pacte, ended his review by admitting that it was “a very strange movie.” John Walker of Halliwell’s seemed to get a better handle on its unique quirkiness, describing it as “a delirious mix of kung-fu fighting, aristocratic shenanigans, Hammer horror and religious and political conspiracies; it is a stylish, enjoyable diversion.” That’s a mini-review I remember well, because it’s how I first heard about Pacte. And my reaction to that summary was, of course,

“Bloody hell, that sounds like fun!”

More History still!

And it is. My God, it is. Christophe Gans, its director, went on to adapt another piece of highly atmospheric, derivative yet individual, stylish nonsense, Silent Hill (sorry, Silent Hill), which didn’t do quite as well. And I must confess that as, like Cain, I’ve wandered the earth trying to find people to show this movie too, a great number of them have confessed that they find it baffling and a little cheesy. They’ve also done really irritating things like pointing out the obvious plot holes. I don’t mind. That’s the entire point of cult classics (even if they are international successes, as Pacte was).

But it’s Christmas. It’s a time for family, friends and lovers. But above all, it’s a time for a movie which contains high-kicking, sword-fights, death by wolf pack, monsters, eroticism, penis jokes, religious hypocrisy, guillotines, and a bit with a killer fan. (That’s…like, a lady’s fan. It’s spiky. It’s awesome and deeply silly, much like another weapon which I won’t spoil here, and much like the film itself.) It's time for a guilty pleasure that leaves you feeling delighted and amused and not as if you've just spent two-and-a-half hours wading through pigswill.

Right. Enough teasing; I’m sticking the DVD in.


  1. well if you do want to jump off that notion that French mainstream cinema isn't fun why don't you check out comedies like: Le Père Noël est une ordure, Le dîner de cons (recently remade terribly as dinner for schmucks), Papy fait de la résistance, Bienvenue chez les ch'tis, Les Visiteurs, & pretty much every film that Louis de Funès or Bourville has starred in (those type of films start getting showed on French TV around this time of year, like the Great Escape).

  2. can I continue to hold my baseless, silly and deliberately provocative prejudices if you're going to provide me with good examples why I'm wrong?

    I have seen Les Visiteurs, actually, though I didn't get on with it that well. The others I will investigate. Thanks!