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Nostalgia, separatism and Kung Fu
Christophe Gans' Le Pacte des loups (Brotherhood of the Wolf, 2001)
A French action-horror blockbuster, Christophe Gans' Le Pacte des loups has more than just martial arts and monsters going for it. Kathryn Bergeron here looks at the film's "almost brutal lament for a history lost under the charging pressure of change."
Christophe Gans' Le Pacte des loups (Brotherhood of the Wolf, France, 2001) is a superior fusion of the horror film, action movie and costume drama. While it ostensibly appears to be an attempt (and a successful one, at that) by France to create a Hollywood-style blockbuster, it is clear from Le Pacte des loups' construction that suspense and gore are not the lone aspirations in the film's sprawling two hours and twenty-four minutes of screen time.
The film popularises itself with extensive martial arts choreography and a textured pace, exploring the visceral repugnance of the diegetic world with the frequent inclusion of slow motion and stills into its action sequences, and well-placed special effects which keep the "Beast" a mystery until the film's latter half.
This is no doubt the reason why close to 70 percent of the teenage French audience went to see Le Pacte des loups, earning it over USD 1.5 million in its first weekend of release. However, much like its brethren in the genre, Gans' film uses horror conventions in order to explore imbedded social issues—in this case, an almost brutal lament for a history lost under the charging pressure of change.
History and horror
Le Pacte des loups is loosely based on the French legend of the Beast of Gevaudan, who reportedly killed almost 100 people—mostly women and children—between 1764 and 1767, before ultimately being killed itself. Gans takes the character of legend and, consequently, the very nature of legend and memory itself, to displace history and truth, devoting an immense portion of the film to the displacement of these and other man-made institutions. In other words, the retelling of this legend becomes a forum for critiquing the persona of history, stories that have been carefully selected and embellished by the historian.
This disavowal of history explains the presentation of the story as a flashback from the Marquis d'Apcher (Jacques Perrin), who catalogues the tale of the Beast from his manor—his last duty before he gives himself to the torch-bearing mob of revolutionaries waiting outside. The Marquis notes that he is perhaps the last person alive to know the real story of the Beast and its death, and of the people who overcame the horror. The Marquis thus presents himself as the authoritative voice of truth, which is indeed a history as told by the conquerors.
From this point the film goes back to the time of the Beast, presenting a plethora of generic characters: damsels in distress, creepy clergymen, gypsies, lords and ladies, a mysterious animal and, as is custom, the heroes. After a scene in which the Beast claims its newest victim, a young peasant girl (thrashed in gory detail against a large boulder by an unidentified creature), we are introduced to Grégoire de Fronsac (Samuel Le Bihan) and his kickboxing companion Mani (Mark Dacascos). The pair quickly demonstrate their power and charity, saving an old man and his daughter from the brutality of the local soldiers. De Fronsac and Mani stay with the young Thomas d'Apcher (Jérémie Rénier) while they see to their duty of discovering and killing the dreaded Beast.
Gods and monsters
De Fronsac performs as a Chevalier during his visit, carousing with the court of the rural province, who all still manage to dine and gossip while peasants are being mauled to death, interested above all else in the happenings in Paris. It is soon evident that de Fronsac represents a foreign intellect to this court, being labeled a "naturalist," fooling the group with a preserved "furry" fish from the cold waters of Canada and alluding to the lies present in Latin—a direct stab at Catholicism in the presence of a priest.
However, de Fronsac soon matches wits with Jean-François de Morangias (Vincent Cassel), who calls the fish out to be a fake, a fact to which de Fronsac pleasantly concedes. Here the notion of the preservation of history is called into question, and the purpose set for the rest of the film. De Fronsac is a logical scientist, one who understands how both history and nature can be manipulated in the hands of authority; de Morangias, meanwhile, stands to challenge de Fronsac's deception, but not his ability to manipulate. De Morangias' objection is to the alterations that de Fronsac caries with him—instead of faith and religion he possesses knowledge and reform, a dangerous combination for the aristocracy. Also in this scene is the development of de Fronsac's attraction for de Morangias' sister, Marianne (Émilie Dequenne), an attraction that will also challenge the construction of truth.
While de Fronsac represents an intellectual opposition to the more rigidly religious influences in the province, his companion Mani represents a physical opposition of both body and soul. Mani, an Iroquois Indian, demonstrates his empathy with animals during a massive wolf hunt (a meager attempt to kill the Beast), thanking de Fronsac when he prevents Marianne from shooting a wolf. Afterwards he reads the spirit animals of several of the hunting party, who laugh at the idea of Mani being a priest in his own land and express concern over the possibility of Indian/white miscegenation. Mani coyly replies that "all women are the same color when the candles are blown out." He thus implies a bodily threat to the institutional traditions of the province, both sexually and in sheer physical prowess, the latter established by his remarkable martial arts abilities.
The Beast's attacks are attributed to the logic of artificial calculation rather than nature, as the animal will only attack women and children and manages to avoid the traps laid out for it (including a corpse stuffed with poison and a group of soldiers in dresses). This artificiality is also made evident by the iron tooth de Fronsac discovers, left behind in one victim. While de Fronsac prepares his weapons, Mani dons face and body paint, melding with the spirits of the wolves in the forest to draw out the Beast.
Following a confrontation, the Beast is badly wounded, and Mani goes after it in search of its master. After defending himself from a den of gypsies, Mani himself is killed by a silver bullet hand-pressed by de Morangias—the beast's master and a member of the separatist "Pacte" who ironically usher in the change they so violently seek to avoid through the use of the Beast.
De Fronsac seeks his revenge on the gypsies who led Mani to his death, but in the meantime he cannot prevent de Morangias from raping Marianne and leaving her for dead. In this disturbing moment of incest, de Morangias seeks to preserve the purity he so dearly values from the influx of the foreign he perceives in de Fronsac. Ultimately de Fronsac leads the authorities to a meeting of the Pacte, and the masked figure draped in red velvet are revealed only to be the ineffectual and aging aristocracy, men and women who used the Beast to keep the peasants as obedient to them as they would be to God.
Catharsis and liberation
De Fronsac and de Morangias have one final duel, and de Fronsac emerges victorious, only to discover that Marianne may be dying. De Fronsac holds an unconscious Marianne in his arms and administers one of Mani's remedies, but we do not see her regain consciousness - rather, we return to the present time of the Marquis d'Apcher, who again sadly remarks on the loss of this story before one final flashback to what can only be called the "MacGuffin" of the Beast.
De Fronsac learns from a gypsy that the Beast was one of the litter of an animal de Morangias brought back from Africa, who had been brutally trained to kill and then covered with armor to make it even more effective. As the Beast lay dying from the wounds inflicted earlier by Mani and de Fronsac, the latter leans over and pets the Beast above its eye, through a space in the armor. The miserable moan of the Beast at this last comfort before its death only reinforces the critique of the devout cruelty and almost immovable control of the institutions of both church and state, making the analogous flash-forward to the state of revolution at the end of the film all the more comprehensible.
In his last moment of subjectivity, the Marquis leaves his manor and reveals his silent hope that de Fronsac and Marianne live somewhere happily, far away. We then see them both on a ship, as de Fronsac releases Mani's ashes over the ocean waters. As we pull back, we see that the name of the ship is "Frère Loup" (Brother Wolf)—and we are left to question whether this moment is one last indication that, like memory and nostalgia, history itself may be just a dream.
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