Brotherhood of the Wolf

Brotherhood of the Wolf (Le pacte des loups) (2001)

Brotherhood of the Wolf (Le pacte des loups) first published by Little White Lies, as entry 175 in my Cinema Psychotronicum column

Christophe Gans’ Brotherhood of the Wolf (Le pacte des loups) is a fantasy adventure set in a history within a history. The framing narrative that bookends its actions (and occasionally interrupts them with elegiac commentary) sees a greying gentleman (Jacques Perrin) choosing to finish penning his memoirs in his castle quarters rather than to seek escape from the mob outside baying for his blood. 

It is the late Eighteenth Century, and the French Revolution is in full swing. “This world had to change,” says Thomas d’Apcher in voiceover, wistfully recognising that there is no place for an old noble like himself in the approaching Republic, and resigned to his fate. Yet in his final hours, his mind is filled less with present danger than with events from his youth, some three decades earlier, which similarly gave rise to public hysteria and potential subversion of the then prevailing order. 

Those events are drawn from real history: between 1764 and 1767, the mysterious Beast of Gévaudan – said to be wolf-like in appearance, but much larger and with an uncharacteristic enthusiasm for homicide – was terrorising the rural province in south-central France, killing over 100 locals. The failure of several royally sanctioned hunting parties to kill this monstrous cause célèbre made the Beast not just a threat to Gévaudan’s exposed peasant population, but to the supposed divine authority on which the King’s power rested. This was a true-life horror story with resonances in both mythology and politics.

In treating this history, Gans engages in his own myth-making. For the principal inset narrative begins with a scene of the unseen Beast viciously attacking and killing a terrified woman, and then of two royal emissaries arriving on horseback in rainy Gévaudan. These two fictive characters – the King’s gardener and naturalist Grégoire de Fronsac (Samuel Le Bihan) and his loyal ‘brother’ Mani (Mark Dacascos) – have been fashioned to look like cowboys from a western, and indeed Mani is, somewhat improbably, an actual Iroquois

Yet as this pair crosses paths with a group of soldiers (dressed as women) ruthlessly clubbing the old peasant Jean Chasterl (Philippe Nahon) and his wild-eyed daughter (Virginie Darmon), Mani single-handedly takes them all on in a fight that is less oater standoff than martial arts beatdown. So it is clear from the outset that, in this historical setting, genre is vey much up for grabs. Sure enough, soon Gans will be deftly intertwining the tropes of Hammer horror, court intrigue, romantic melodrama, murder mystery, creature feature, action extravaganza and revenger’s tragedy to put his own imprint in this by-road of French history.

Fronsac and Mani are there as guests of the younger Thomas d’Apcher (Jérémie Renier) to investigate the Beast’s attacks – the former with the rationalising eye of a naturalist, the latter with the instinctive spirit of a shamanic hunter. In the film’s first half, Fronsac fails even to see the Beast – which, owing to the grammatical gender of the French word for ‘beast’ (la bête), is always referred to in the feminine as ‘she’ or ‘her’. He does, though, have his eye fixed on another woman, the virginal noblewoman Marianne de Morangias (Émilie Dequenne), whom he pursues with equal fervour and as little success. A notorious libertine, Fronsac seeks solace for his failed courting in the more open arms of  Sylvia (Monica Bellucci), an Italian courtesan at the local brothel who seems to have a better idea of this community’s comings and goings than anyone else.

There is a sequence in Brotherhood of the Wolf where Fronsac shows his fellow diners a miraculous fur-covered fish that he claims to have found in the Americas, before revealing that is in fact a fake product of creative taxidermy. “Dragons and unicorns only appear in fables,” Fronsac explains – and shortly afterwards he will be reluctantly recruited to dress up a wolf’s cadaver to make it look more monstrous, as propaganda – and a rewriting of history – for the King. In a sense this is what Gans is doing in this film, as he carves into history’s corpse and sexes it up with his own layers of sensationalist fiction. 

The film’s first half, though focusing on a pair of invented characters, does lay out with some accuracy the historical details of the elusive Beast’s countryside ravages – but the second half, slyly introduced in Thomas d’Apcher’s narration with the words, “What really happened appears in no history book – it was carefully hushed up”, traces Fronsac and Mani’s second, privately initiated visit to Gévaudan, where both the Beast (now fully seen), and fantasy itself, are unleashed and allowed to run riot, in what is pure movie make-believe. 

Woven into this mythological tapestry is commentary on the bestiality of France’s own history. The nobility that we saw facing eradication in the film’s frame section is shown in the earlier narrative sections for all its overt racism, sexism and blatant disregard of peasant lives, while different characters here have been shaped by their experiences of French colonialism abroad. Mani’s entire clan was wiped out by the toxicity of colonists in North America’s New France, while the same campaigns left Fronsac both literally scarred, and also disillusioned with the mores of his own countrymen. Meanwhile Marianne’s brother Jean-François (Vincent Cassel), an experienced hunter, has been crippled by an encounter with a lion in the African colonies.   

Brotherhood of the Wolf may pit man against beast while breaking down the differences between them, but there are other polarities that it also confounds and subverts – civilisation vs savagery, male vs female, theology vs secularism, truth vs fiction, old vs new – to cast a spotlight on France’s darkest mythos. Delivering all at once visceral monster mayhem and bonkers political conspiracy, Gans thrills the viewer from start to finish, while proving the words of the Versailles courtier and propagandist Mercier (Bernard Fresson): “Truth is a complicated thing.” For amid all this film’s flights of fancy, we get an allegorical picture of a nation ever in flux and ever frozen, where revolution is the only vehicle of change, yet always seems to bring out the beast.  

strap: Christophe Gans’ pre-Revolutionary cowboy flick/creature feature hunts for hidden truths in historical myth and mythopoeia

Anton Bitel