September 02, 2011

Le pacte des loups (2001)

The Beast of Gévaudan is the name of a legendary creature that, according to history, terrorized the former province of Gévaudan, France, killing nearly 100 people from 1764 to 1767. The mysterious Beast was described as a huge wolf-like creature with reddish tinge and a long tail, gifted with sharp teeth and jaws powerful enough to crush and remove the heads of its victims; and the Beast was said to prefer humans over other preys. Many attempts of hunting the beast were organized, all without luck, until according to tradition, a local hunter killed the Beast. Since the origin of the Beast was never completely cleared (and the story of its death has more the tone of legend instead of history), the monster quickly became the source of many rumors, legends and conspiracy theories. The legendary Beast soon became part of folklore and subsequently has appeared in numerous works of fiction. Director Christophe Gans' film "Le pacte des loups" is one of them, a modern retelling of the legend of la Bête du Gévaudan.

"Le pacte des loups" (literally "The pact of the wolves", but known in English as "Brotherhood of the Wolf") is the story of Grégoire De Fronsac (Samuel Le Bihan), the royal taxidermist of King Louis XV of France, who is sent to Gévaudan with his Native American friend Mani (Mark Dacascos), in an attempt to capture and study the Beast that has been terrorizing the people of Gévaudan. A skeptic of the stories about the Beast, Fronsac prefers to dedicate his efforts to romance Marianne De Morangais (Émilie Dequenne), much to the displeasure of Marianne's brother Jean-François (Vincent Cassel); however, as the killings continue happening, Fronsac begins to take his assignation more seriously, though he concludes that no normal wolf could be the responsible of the attacks. Is it a werewolf? Is it a demon?. As the story of Gévaudan reaches Paris, it begins to get used to mock the King, so the Government demands Fronsac a quick solution to the Beast problem. Soon Fronsac and Mani discover clues that point out to something bigger than any Beast they have met before.

The story of the film was written by Stéphane Cabel and Christophe Gans himself, and while it is an entirely fictional story built around the case, the plot follows somewhat closely the recorded history of the Beast's legend, particularly the one recorded on Michel Louis' book "L'Innocence des loups". Cabel and Gans' screenplay is a highly energetic mix of period drama, mystery and adventure under an ever present theme of horror. All in all being pretty much like an updated version of the period films that the legendary Hammer Films used to produce during the 60s and 70s ("Captain Kronos - Vampire Hunter" comes to mind). One should not expect a rigorous historical accuracy in "Le pacte des loups", as the film works as a historical fantasy more concerned about delivering stylish entertainment than a history lesson. Filled with intrigue, secrets and conspiracy theories, the plot at times gets a bit too confusing for its own good, and Cabel and Gans' attempt to build up a complicated mystery ends up leaving some noticeable plot holes that ultimately hurt the film a bit.

As written above, despite its convoluted storyline, "Le pacte des loups" is ultimately all about style over substance, and director Christophe Gans follows this approach displaying an amazing, fresh and vibrant visual narrative with a style that's both exciting and ominously atmospheric. In "Le pacte des loups", Gans mixes Gothic horror with the action of martial arts films, a combination that may sound odd for a film set on 18th century France, however, it actually works surprisingly well despite its obviously anachronism. Part of the success of this atypical combination is due to the sumptuous work by production designer Guy-Claude François, whom brings to life Gans vision with a sharp eye for detail. Danish cinematographer Dan Laustsen is also integral part of the lavish look the film has, as the seasoned photographer creates a colorful, yet undoubtedly Gothic visual imagery of a haunting beauty and ominous atmosphere. In a manner similar to director Tim Burton's "Sleepy Hollow", Christophe Gans resurrects the Gothic horror adventures with very good results.

French actor Samuel Le Bihan takes the lead role and gives life to taxidermist Grégorie De Fronsac, making of the role the portrait of an 18th century libertine. As Fronsac, Le Bihan is charming and witty, although his role is not a character without flaws, and Le Bihan gives his character enough emotional depth to avoid the simple caricature. Mark Dacascos plays Fronsac's best friend, the Iroquois Indian Mani, who unlike Fronsac, is of a very focused and responsible nature. Known mainly for his action films, Dacascos shows a surprising dramatic talent that coupled with his strong presence, allows him to steal the scene anytime he's on screen (Gans previously worked with him in the underrated "Crying Freeman"). Émilie Dequenne plays Marianne, Fronsac's love interest, though her weak performance makes her being often overshadowed by other members of the cast. The film's highlight is Vincent Cassel, as the bizarre Jean-François De Morangias, who creates an interesting and complex character where he can allow himself to go appropriately over-the-top.

An odd beast in its anachronism and mixture of genres, "Le pacte des loups" is an ambitious exercise, but one that ultimately succeeds in creating a captivating tale of mystery and intrigue. Closer to comic books and pulp fiction than to historical fiction, "Le pacte des loups" is a remarkable story of Gothic adventures that feels slick, stylish, and despite its Hollywood vibe, remains distinctively French. Nevertheless, as wonderful as it is, the movie is not without flaws, some related to the script itself. As mentioned before, Cabel and Gans craft a convoluted plot for the mystery, however, the last third of the film feels rushed and simplistic, as if they had not been forced to give a quick solution to their already too long story. It is a bit of a letdown after the strong built up of the first two thirds. Another quibble is the poor work of CG effects that the movie has, which are definitely not up to the standards set by the rest of the production, and cheapen an otherwise lavish visual style.

Director Christophe Gans has created in "Le pacte des loups" an enjoyable genre piece that is actually very good in its own terms. Against all odds, the fusion of Gothic horror, detective fiction and martial arts films works out seamlessly, and the result is a fresh and inventive tale of horror and adventure that's ultimately satisfying. While "Le pacte des loups" is certainly not a redefinition of cinema or its genres, it is a thrilling adventure that fully delivers good entertainment. Like the movies by Hammer Films used to do in their heyday, "Le Pacte Des Loups", or "Brotherhood of the Wolf", is a full fledged roller-coaster of action and horror. In "Le pacte des loups" director Christophe Gans brings back the sense of awe that used to be part of adventure films.


No comments: