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Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2002
Killing the beast thirsty for the blood of reason
By KAORI SHOJI
"Animal" is the operative word for this picture. It packs in carnivore themes with a vengeance and could put you off hamburgers for an entire week.
"Le Pacte des loups (Brotherhood of the Wolf)" is based on a slice of French history during the time of Louis XV. Over a two-year period, 100 women and children in southeastern France were found dead, their bodies horribly mutilated. No men or members of the aristocracy were harmed. The king pooh-poohed suggestions that the deaths were due to a supernatural animal, or the devil disguised as a femme- and enfant-eating wolf. Chagrined, he decided to send Gregoire de Fronsac, a famed zoologist and military hero, to the site. Fronsac was to investigate, report and supervise the killing of what the court held to be some stray wolf with cabin fever. The king's move reflected "The Age of Reason" in the Parisian Court: science and philosophy were bound to win over religion and superstition.
The resulting legend of "The Beast" is even now popular in France, especially since its identity was never determined and theories abounded as to whether anyone succeeded in killing it. Director Christophe Gans was not only familiar with the material but, as he says in the production notes, longing to make a period film involving "a lot of knives and swords."
He wasn't kidding. There is an extravagant, almost fetishistic use of sharp blades everywhere, from combat to dinner to love scenes. It's not so much people dying (though, of course, they do that, too) as streaks of red splashed all over the place. Gans enhances the ambience with appropriate props such as a lot of creased leather, outrageously sexy boots, hunting outfits of crimson velvet. Oh, and the candles. Those dripping, pointy-flamed, Made-in-Dungeon candles. Brrr. "Le Pacte des loups" is an excellent opportunity to test one's hemoglobin levels: The anemic should come armed with iron supplements.
It's also an action movie of high caliber, combining Euro sword/knife techniques with Asian martial arts. Philip Kwok, a veteran choreographer who has worked with John Woo, among others, teams up with Gans to provide memorable moments of stylized violence. Most of the glory goes to Mark Dacascos, a former kung-fu champion from Hawaii who has the demeanor of a Zen master contract-killer, if there could be such a thing. Dacascos' role is that of a sauvage brought from the wilds of America to civilized France, but it's clear Gans intends it to be the other way around: It is the French aristocrats with their hypocrisy and cruelty who seem untamed, and the savage who is noble and clear of vision. As to the way he fights, just watching him kick, turn and swirl elegantly in the air before landing a punch in the enemy's flabby gut -- immediately makes you want to grab a rag to go polish the floors of his dojo.
The presence of Dacascos neutralizes but never diminishes the discomfort of this story. The cruelty just doesn't let up and even ends with a French Revolution riot, implying more violence on the guillotine. Gans makes sure nothing gets in the way of terror, not even co-star Monica Bellucci ("Malena"), otherwise known as The Most Beautiful Woman in the World. In one scene, she cuts a man's chest with a knife she has stashed under her pillow (one of those thin, wicked jobs with a jeweled handle), then slooooowly licks the blood off the blade, saying: "This is to remember me by." OK, forget the iron supplements; what you need is an IV drip.
Rumors of le be^te (the beast) first reached Paris in 1764: In a mountainous region of southeastern France, clawed and bitten female corpses turned up weekly. Gregoire de Fronsac (Samuel Le Bihan) is sent to investigate with his trusted Indian companion, Mani (Dacascos). The local aristocracy is mistrustful and accuses Fronsac of blasphemy when he suggests that "the beast" is not the work of the devil but of some diabolical man. Soon, Fronsac becomes suspicious of Jean-Francois de Morangias (Vincent Cassell), who has a sadistic streak and is overly possessive of his beautiful sister Marianne (Emilie Dequenne).
Fronsac, Mani and their mutual friend Thomas d'Apcher (Jeremie Renier) finally track down the beast, which turns out to be a large dog encased in spiky steel armor. In the process, Thomas is wounded, Mani is killed and Fronsac stumbles upon the terrible truth behind le be^te: a group of religious fanatics called "Brotherhood of the Wolf," intent on stamping out the seeds of reason and modernization. Enraged at Mani's death, Fronsac vows to take the Brotherhood down or perish, when a mysterious Italian prostitute called Sylvia (Bellucci) comes to his aid.
"Le Pacte" is a French production that beats Hollywood at its own game. The fast-paced and rhythmic story, the neat balance between action and gore, a love affair in the midst of tragedy . . . it's all here. And the good guys all look like they come from L.A. and the bad guys look like they chain-smoke and carry Euro passports. Samuel Le Bihan could actually be Mel Gibson with blonde hair and Emilie Dequenne could star in a "Beverly Hills 90210" episode any time. Could this be another indicator of globalization?