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A Real Howler

Attended by a rather sexy air of intrigue, the hit French film Brotherhood of the Wolf (Le Pacte des Loups) arrives upon our shores, and, refreshingly, it's left up to us to figure out just what the hell it is. Monster movie? Costume drama? Martial-arts extravaganza? To say the least, it's the most ambitious import since Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, with which it shares the all-too-rare ability to blur the line between art house and multiplex. While its reception is certain to be mixed, it's not a movie that's easily forgotten.

As it opens, Brotherhood seems to invite us into a revised take on Jaws or, to some extent, Jabberwocky. The year is 1764, the setting is France, and something ghastly is ravaging the countryside -- you know, eating people. The moldy peasants are terrified, and rightly so, because this mysterious, insatiable creature -- the Beast of Gévaudan -- takes no prisoners, and its stealth is supernatural and terrifying. Since King Louis XV (Gaspard Ulliel) is busy battling Britain over the territory of the New World, he can't abide the Beast's wreaking havoc on his home turf. Thus, he enlists a rational scientist named Grégoire de Fronsac (Samuel le Bihan) and de Fronsac's spiritual Iroquois blood brother, Mani (Mark Dacascos), to track and slay the nasty predator.

While it sounds simple enough to set loose a monster, then have it tailed by a Gallic Lone Ranger and his variant of Tonto, screenwriter Stéphane Cabel and writer-director Christophe Gans seem utterly immune to the concept of simplicity. Not only is the Beast far too intelligent for anyone's good -- it happily sets traps for its victims, the better to increase their terror -- the monstrous shocks are built upon a foundation of subplots so complex (and occasionally convoluted) that two screenings are almost mandatory to get the movie's full gist. The highly original tale becomes a weird amalgamation: The Last of the Misérables mixed with The Affair of the Howling.

To name but a few of the film's many structural layers, we've got two powerful women involved, in the forms of sensuous, self-obsessed courtesan Sylvia (Monica Bellucci) and the seemingly naive Marianne (Emilie Dequenne), who stir the men's passions and the scandals of the court. We've also got the Beast as a harbinger of the French Revolution -- still a quarter-century away -- and we've got the denial-ridden king parading a trussed-up wolf around Paris to simulate victory over the Beast, much to the nation's peril. Narratively, it's a crepe stuffed to the verge of bursting.

Graciously, the producers have considered the needs of audiences who may not wish to process loads of French history and metaphysical philosophy by way of subtitles. To balance their bluster, they've gone to great lengths to ladle on the eye candy. In addition to Bellucci and Dacascos -- who are special effects in their own right -- the costumers, designers, and metalsmiths clearly worked overtime to coax the word lavish from critics' pens.

Then there's the matter of the Beast itself, built and rendered by Jim Henson's Creature Shop, in a toothy triumph of design to give the willies to fans of Babe and Animal Farm. While its digital form occasionally leaks a bit of fromage, the Beast's overall conception is grand and mean, not to be trifled with in the fog or under the floorboards. Without giving too much away, let's just say it will please fans of He-Man. Thematically, it also prowls pretty close to the terrain of Sleepy Hollow, as its secrets involve -- natch -- those pesky conservatives who keep unleashing evil all over the place.

Let it also be noted that, despite its frequent forays into refined society, this is a project bent on kicking maximum ass. The fight choreography is top-notch, breathlessly staged by veteran Hong Kong actor Philip Kwok (who also choreographed John Woo's Hard Boiled). If anything, there's too much of a good thing here, as Mani's kickboxing and the seemingly endless swordplay sequences begin to blur together over the film's hearty, two-hour-plus length. Still, as with Xin Xin Xiong's choreography in last year's otherwise lagging The Musketeer, one cannot help but appreciate the artistry.

As for the storytelling, it's a little obtuse. Up-and-comer Vincent Cassel (of the silly The Crimson Rivers) blasts bombast as Marianne's crippled, roguish brother, and Jean-François Stévenin steps in as a troublesome priest. Of course, all manner of superstitions, religious conspiracies, and insurrections are aired, resulting less in awe than bewilderment. But taken as an exciting and expansive cultural bridge, the film is a roaring success.

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Gregory Weinkauf

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