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"Brotherhood of the Wolf" is one of those movies that for some reason appealed to me back when I saw the trailers. I'm not sure what it was exactly but there was something in the trailer that looked intriguing. However like so many other non mainstream films, it would take weeks after it's theatrical release in January of 2002 before I would have the chance to see it. If not for lack of trying, a number of failed attempts at seeing the film were made including one that resulted in a rather pricey traffic violation for one of my friends. Finally one Sunday night after exhausting all of our other options we finally took in "Le Pacte des Loups" or "The Brotherhood of the Wolf".

Movie
The story begins in 1764 where Gregoire de Fronsac (Samuel Le Bihan) and his Indian friend and brother Mani (Mark Dacascos) arrive in the Gevaudan region of France. They have been summoned by the King to investigate the terrible deaths of many of the areas women and children, who have been attacked by a mysterious and dangerous creature known only as the Beast. The Beast takes no mercy on it's victims leaving them brutalized and in some cases unrecognizable to those who knew them. Local authorities and eye witness accounts of the attacks are limited, but the general consensus is that the beast is some sort of wolf. Many hunts are launched leading to the death of a number of innocent and fairly harmless wolves, however still the attacks and deaths continue. Fronsac is convinced that the wolves are not linked to the killings and believes that a group of suspicious acting humans may be involved in the attacks. Aiding Fronsac in his quest meets a local prostitute Madame Slyvia (Malena's Monica Belluci) who tells him that not everything as it seems and with whom he falls in love. Also competing for his affections is a rich aristocrat Marianne whose brother Jean Francois (Vincent Cassel) appears to be at the heart of the conspiracy.

Brotherhood Of The Wolf
"Brotherhood of the Wolf" is a French film unlike any other as it combines aspects of horror, suspense, action, romance and period drama to become anything but the quintessential French drama. Director Christophe Gans combines these aspects in a way only a true master could, creating a captivating, sexy and sleek action/drama hybrid with an epic-feel. "Brotherhood of the Wolf" marks a giant leap ahead in scope for the young French director . Gans had limited directing experience before this with only 1995's "Crying Freeman" under his belt but yet this film feels as if it's been directed by a seasoned pro. He creates a layered and deceptive tone that unnerves the viewer into suspecting something is amiss while a sense of safety and comfort still remains. Gans also keeps things close to the ground never allowing the film to spiral completely out of control, which is something that could have easily happened given the somewhat absurd and creative mixture of genres and styles. He keeps things in check so that the film flows from drama to action to mystery and back without seeming jarring or disjointed. Another aspect of Christophe Gans’ direction that I liked was how he used the film's central villain "The Beast". For the first hour of the film we never see the beast. We hear about the brutal attacks, we even witness one over the opening credits but the beast is never shown. This minimalist approach keeps the audience off guard, allowing them to make up their own minds about what sort of creature would be responsible for such faceless and disturbing acts. Is the beast simply a rabid wolf or is something much more nightmarish? That distinction is left up to the audience until the beast makes his first on-screen appearance in the film's action packed second half.

It's not often that I discuss the technical aspects of a film in my movie reviews as I chose to focus more on the story line, execution and performances. However in this case, part of what makes "Brotherhood of the Wolf" work is it's downright amazing technical presentation. Director Christophe Gans has assembled a team of crew members from various countries including China and the United States. By surrounding himself with the best of the best from many countries, Gans gives his film a truly international feel. The film has a very consistent, well photographed look courtesy of Dan Lausten who lensed the entire film. Lausten has the ability to take a mixture of light and dark scenes and create both a vast open landscape for the exteriors and a cramped enclosed look for the interiors. It's a real credit to his work as a cinematographer, as the blend of different styles is seamlessly in his hands. The film also has a bigger then life epic look to it, which helps to convey the true to life aspects of the film while alerting the viewer to the fact that this is a highly fictionalized account. The film also uses a dazzlingly array of visual effects, including stop motion photography as well as a number of computer generated landscapes to enhance the action.

Moving onto the performances, Gans has assembled a talented cast of primarily French actors to fill out the roles. In the lead role of Gregoire De Fronsac we have Samuel Le Bihan, an accomplished actor who's appeared in over 20 films in France. This is my first chance to see Bihan and he does well in his layered role of the adventure seeker, naturalist and scholar. Joining him is Mark Dacascos, another actor I'm not entirely familiar with who plays Mani, his native Indian sidekick and protector. Dascaso works primarily on this side of the pond, though his body of work is made up mostly of smaller "B" type movies. Vincent Cassel is probably best known in America for his roles in "The Crimson Rivers" and "Elizabeth" as well as voicing Monsieur Hood in "Shrek". Cassel plays a devilish villain here, and really gives another mind-bending performance. The women of the piece also give excellent performances, though they are not given as much to do as their male counterparts. Monica Belluci takes what could be considered a simplistic role as a local madame and makes it uniquely her own, while Emilie Dequenne is eloquent as the wealthy but sheltered aristocrat.

Brotherhood Of The Wolf
"Brotherhood of the Wolf" is not a perfect film but given the risks it takes in combining various genres into one cohesive piece of film, it more then meets my expectations. Director Christophe Gans has created a fun, highly entertaining, not to mention engaging film that will no doubt stand the test of time and hopefully become a new benchmark for the type of feature film coming from France. It's fresh and never boring, while still managing to tell a concise and interesting story.

Video
Universal brings "Le Pacte des Loups" / "Brotherhood of the Wolf" to the small screen in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. Now there has been discussion online about the differences in the video transfers between this release and a longer cut of the film available in Canada from TVA Films. I have to say I've seen them both and the Universal transfer wins out in terms of general image quality, though there are aspects of the Canadian disc's transfer that I prefer. That said, Universal has done an excellent job of creating a transfer with very few problems. The film, which is one of the most beautifully shot I've ever seen, is well represented by this transfer.

The 2.35:1 transfer is nicely framed, and cinematographer Dan Lausten's compositions come across as nicely as they did on the big screen.  For the most part, the transfer is as sharp as a razor blade with brief hints of softness scattered throughout. Detail is excellent, allowing the exquisite production design to shine through and even the smallest detail to be seen. Another aspect of the transfer that's very appealing is the colors, which are without a doubt some of the nicest and most vibrant tones I've seen ever on DVD rivalling only "Moulin Rouge". The reds are deep and stunning and the various different greens of the forest are simply jaw dropping. Black level is also amongst the deepest I've ever had the pleasure of seeing. In terms of problems, I spotted some minor edge enhancement as well as few small dust/dirt marks on the print. Essentially this is a very "film like" appearance and less digital looking then the TVA  Films release which suffers from a few compression issues that resulted from the attempt to cram in 3 additional audio tracks. However both transfers are still very good. This Universal disc is just a bit better.

Audio
Universal brings "Brotherhood of the Wolf" to everyone's favorite home format in Dolby Digital 5.1 in both the original French as well as a dub in English. The big difference between this US disc from Universal disc and the Canadian TVA Films release is the DTS track, which is exclusive to the Canadian release. Like 95% of the films I review, I had seen "Brotherhood of the Wolf" theatrically though it was in a rather small house at a theater that's known to be hit or miss in terms of audio presentation. So imagine my surprise when I popped the disc in and had the audio experience of a lifetime. "Brotherhood of the Wolf" is hands down one of the best sound mixes I've ever heard. The action scenes are loud and aggressive while the dramatic and character based scenes are more subdued while still offering an above average amount of ambient sound. The film isn't scared to use sound, and it's designed to be played loud and through a digital sound system. Every speaker in the array gets used to provide a constantly engaging and enjoyable sound experience. Environmental sound is used creatively and the viewer really gets the sense that they are right there and part of the action. The LFE channel also receives a strong workout throughout the fight scenes, and the numerous scenes involving inclimate weather and the prerequisite thunderstorms. In comparing the two releases, the DTS sound mix on the TVA Films edition of the film does provide a louder, more aggressive experience though there is no questioning that regardless which flavor you choose on which version that you won't be disappointed.

Extras
Here's where things get a bit disappointing as Universal gets showed up by it's smaller Canadian counterpart TVA Films. "Brotherhood of the Wolf" was one of the biggest films of 2001 in France and other areas of Europe. That title led to an extensive Special Edition set dealing with multiple discs and fancy packaging. While TVA Films has brought the majority of that material to Canada to create a three disc collectors edition release, Universal has chosen to go the single disc route.

The big ticket item on this release is the inclusion of 40 minutes of deleted scenes. Director Christophe Gans has included four deleted sequences as well as a fifth highlight reel of deleted material from "Le Pacte des Loups". The scenes are presented one after another as one big long clip off the menu. However, they do appear to be chapter encoded for easy access. Gans introduces each scene by giving the general background information about where the scene would have been placed in the film before showing the clip. After the scene is finished Gans returns to discuss his thoughts and motivations on the scene and why he felt it didn't work or how it would have changed the final film. Gans is a very intelligent man who has an amazing grasp of his film and knows exactly what  he wants out of each scene and while he enjoyed a few of these cut ones, he knew he had to lose them to make the film he wanted to make. In addition to the scene itself the viewer is given a chance to see some behind the scenes footage, interspersed with interview footage after the main sequence has played out. This takes the optional commentary approach to the next level as instead of simply commenting on the removed material, Gans allows us to see him and his crew working on the scenes. The scenes included detail a longer version of the opening fight scene, a scene outside a church as well as a  romantic scene that takes place on a frozen pond. All these scenes work on their own quite well and while they were never intended for a longer cut of the film they do remain highly entertaining.

Brotherhood Of The Wolf
Also included are some production notes, cast and filmmaker biographies as well as the film's US theatrical trailer presented in 2.35:1 non anamorphic widescreen and with Dolby Digital 5.1 sound.

Overall
Universal has put together a nice looking and sounding disc to complement an excellent film. However they have definitely fallen short in terms of extra materials when compared to the stellar Canadian three disc deluxe edition from TVA Films, and the SEs available in other regions. Universal's transfer is a bit better, but lacks the DTS track the three disc version has. If you’re looking for DTS sound or extensive extras then it might be better to pick up the Canadian release. If on the other hand your simply looking for the best transfer and don't care about extras. then this disc from Universal is the way to go. Either way, make sure you see "Brotherhood of the Wolf."


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