Le Pacte des Loups (2-Disc Edition) Review
Normally, it's relatively easy to write an introduction to a review of a film, as most fall into relatively clear generic boundaries. However, Christophe Gans' utterly insane film (aka Brotherhood of the Wolf) doesn't so much ignore genre as positively defy it; thus, what might appear to be a conventional action/martial arts film has as much attention paid to character, setting, scripting and costumes as any Merchant Ivory or Claude Berri opus; conversely, the frequent, bloody action scenes are guaranteed to disorientate any audience that believes it is about to see a nice period drama. Throw into the mix a whole heap of philosophical questions about man's inhumanity to his brother, the Enlightenment concept of the noble savage, and the role of God in society, and we have one of the most insanely overblown films of the year. The fact that, especially in the director's cut, it works so well is down to the sheer conviction with which it is executed.
The plot is convoluted. Gregoire de Fronsac (Le Bihan), a naturalist, libertine and all-round party animal, is sent by Louis XV to the town of Gevaudan, which is being terrorised by a possibly satanic wolf. Being a sceptical man, he soon realises that the wolf is being manipulated by something or someone, but the list of suspects could include Sylvia (Bellucci), the mysterious prostitute he dallies with, Marianne (Dequenne), his potential lover, Jean-Francois (Cassel), her one-armed brother, and even the members of the local aristocracy. Meanwhile, he is assisted by his Indian blood brother Mani (Dacasos), who introduces the locals to rather more vigorous fighting than they have been used to before. It doesn't necessarily make more sense in the context of the film, alarmingly enough, and the denouement verges on the predictable; much of the pleasure lays in the journey.
On a first viewing in the cinema, even with the benefit of English subtitles, the film is often hard to follow, partly because of the complexity of the plot, but also because of the utterly bizarre plot twists that occur. Although the film is, superficially, a 'monster movie', Gans is disinterested in the hunting and stalking aspects of the generic film, concentrating instead on the political conspiracies, which are made far more explicit in this version of the film; the major additions occur roughly an hour in, and concern the hunting, capture and stuffing of 'the beast' by the king's soldiers, and Fronsac's subsequent return to Gevaudan to solve the mystery. The film certainly becomes more comprehensible as a result of the added footage, which, conversely, is not so extensive that it changes the film's overall focus.
The performances are all excellent. Le Bihan, although a surprising choice for the lead given that he is virtually unknown even in France, is superb, making Fronsac convincing as both a man of action and a man of learning. Cassel steals the show, as ever, with his portrayal of a one-armed big game hunter injecting a welcome note of black humour at many points, which is a nice respite from the slightly po-faced nature of the script. Gans has also managed to cast the quite stunningly attractive duo of Bellucci and Dequenne as the women in Fronsac's life, who are guaranteed to make any red-blooded man feel somewhat…jealous. Dacasos, a veteran of Gans' previous film, Crying Freeman, is very athletic in a rather limited part, and the rest of the cast do differing shades of menacing, incompetent or rustic.
The film is not perfect, by any means, and the gusto with which Gans mixes genres will almost certainly put many people off. The film certainly works better second time round, as the plot seems far more comprehensible, and the director's cut makes it even more accessible. While it isn't quite the masterpiece some have claimed it is, it's yet another superb French film, and highly recommended for those who can speak and understand the language.
An utterly flawless transfer, as personally supervised by Gans, is provided here; colours are wonderfully vibrant, the print is perfect, and the film is genuinely a wonder to behold at all points. Absolutely brilliant.
The soundtrack is, unfortunately, provided without English subtitles. However, the good news, for those who speak French, is that French subtitles are provided, making comprehension less of a problem than it might otherwise be. The soundtrack is, as you would expect, incredibly dynamic, with any gunshot and kick being rendered brilliantly in both the DTS and Dolby soundtracks, and the surrounds are used constantly and aggressively. Again, this is, essentially, a perfect example of a DVD's soundtrack being used to its full extent.
The film is being released in two versions, this, the 'normal' one, and a 3-disc limited edition. The only additions on the extra disc are another making-of documentary, some storyboards and some production photographs; it's up to you to decide if it's worth another 100FF for them, especially given the high quality of the extras on the second disc.
The two commentaries are both worth listening to, if slightly dry. Gans sounds bored throughout most of his track, if highly cine-literate, but Cassel and LeBihan are much more fun, especially in the sex scenes between LeBihan and Bellucci (Cassel's wife in real life); their banter is hilarious, especially when LeBihan starts taunting Cassel with 'revelations' of how Bellucci preferred him, only for Cassel to pretend to murder him. Oh, those wacky French…
Meanwhile, the main extras are found on the second disc. The making-of documentary is an excellent, 80-minute look at the film's production, with interviews from all the cast and crew, including a surprisingly large amount in English, given the participation of many American technicians in the film. There are also 6 deleted scenes, with director's introductions; the best is an extended version of the opening fight scene, complete with Fronsac's participation; as Gans remarks, it would have changed the character too much, but it is very exciting and visceral. The usual trailers and cast bios round out the extras, along with an interesting, if short, interview with a historian about the 'real' history behind the beast, in which much of the film's mythology is debunked.
A fine, if rather insane, film is presented on a technically flawless disk with some excellent extras. The lack of English subtitles is a minor disappointment, albeit one partially made up for by the addition of French ones, but this is yet another fine DVD of a Vincent Cassel film; after this, La Haine, Les rivieres pourpres and Dobermann, it appears his presence in a film guarantees a good digital presentation eventually!