Werewolves of Paris

Brotherhood of the Wolf is a French historical forensics blowout; The Shipping News stays at arm’s length; Monster’s Ball knows not what it says.

Approached in the proper spirit, the two-and-a-half-hour French historical martial-arts romance Grand Guignol forensics horror blowout Brotherhood of the Wolf (Universal Focus) is good for nasty chuckles and even a few hearty whoops: You have to admire a movie that endeavors to moosh together every successful cross-cultural action picture ever made.

After a French Revolution-set prologue to establish its pedigree, the movie promptly shifts into Jaws mode with a young blond lass bloodying herself on assorted rocks to escape what locals call “la bête,” described as a giant, woman-and-child-eating wolf. It’s no use running, though: Whatever is producing that Dolbyized grrrrrrrr-raschhhh whips the poor girl around, snaps her spine, and yanks her off-screen to be further mauled. To help in the investigation, King Louis XV dispatches dashing adventurer/taxidermist Grégoire de Fronsac (Samuel Le Bihan) and his “blood-brother”/sidekick Mani (Mark Dacascos), a Native American with liquid brown eyes and a mean corkscrew-swivel-kick. The latter is a Mani of few words, which is just as well since his French accent is worse even than mine: The most outlandish thing in the movie isn’t his kung-fu calisthenics but that the French don’t break up in hysterics at his pronunciation. Even the characters must know how important he is for the American and Asian markets.

They are not entirely credible, our heroes. In a world of bigots and religious zealots, Fronsac and Mani combine the most progressive aspects of science and New Age spirituality. Fronsac, the cinema’s first liberal rationalist pantheist forensic martial-arts swashbuckler, suspects that the true demon is human and that the answer to the murders must lie with an unholy alliance between the fanatical aristocracy—at whose splendid châteaux he is a welcome guest—and the degenerate proles. Mani, the lone survivor of an exterminated tribe, has a mystical communion with animals and religious martyrs of yore (“People died here … I can hear their cries”); between kickboxing bouts, he tries to solve the mystery with the help of the region’s wolves, who clearly don’t appreciate being vilified (and hunted down) for the crimes of some lupine poseur. Both men keep their guard up among the locals, but neither can resist the pull of sundry nubile wenches: Fronsac is torn between a kinky, hot-tempered Italian courtesan (Monica Bellucci) and a chubby-cheeked, throaty ingénue (Emilie Dequenne); Mani is waylaid by a puffy-lipped Angelina Jolie-ish peasant who likes to toss her black mane and stick her tongue down the throats of various Road Warrior refugees.

The movie is a teeming mixture of The Curse of the Werewolf and Cry of the Banshee and Jaws and Sleepy Hollow and A Fistful of Dollars and Let Joy Reign Supreme and The Name of the Rose and Fists of Fury and Mad Max and Once Upon a Time in China II and The Last of theMohicans and The Hound of the Baskervilles and maybe a thousand other pictures that rumble around in the collective unconscious of schlock fiends. And I have no problem with that. In the right hands, this could have been a recipe for the most rollicking exploitation picture ever made. The trouble is that the director, Christophe Gans, prefers his battle scenes heavily chopped-up: Instead of fluid acrobatics, we get hyperbolic montages of kicking feet, somersaulting torsos, and fists connecting with faces. Gans is also fond of tacky slow motion, overamplified bone crunches, and the kind of metallic whooshes that are more appropriate as an accompaniment to spinning disco balls. The film would have been helped by a shade more Ang Lee and a shade less Six Million DollarMan.

That said, the last hour of Brotherhood of the Wolf attains the kind of superconcentrated, out-for-vengeance intensity that leaves you feeling kicked in the head—which isn’t the worst thing you can say about this sort of flick. No Crouching Tiger swoons into oblivion: just a flurry of righteous throat-slashings, disembowelments, and impalings. No wonder this was the biggest movie ever in France. Taste might have actually interfered with some of the best shots, such as the one in which the camera prowls the naked expanse of Monica Bellucci and her mounds of pink-ivory flesh become—in an instant—the snow-covered hills and dales of the southern French countryside. It kinda makes you think this will be France’s biggest DVD as well.

One of the many things I’ve learned as a film critic is that novels with sentences like

The Magnum swung around fast and beside Frank the table exploded in a shower of poker chips as he felt his body twist and then launch itself over the ottoman, firing one shot, two, the first bullet ripping through Murphy’s right hand while the second punctured his spleen and sent an ocher-tinted porridge splashing hard against the pale wall …

often make very entertaining movies, while novels with sentences like,

His thoughts churned like the amorphous thing that ancient sailors, drifting into arctic half-light, called the Sea Lung; a heaving sludge of ice under fog where air blurred into water, where liquid was solid, where solids dissolved, where the sky froze and light and dark muddled …

tend to be rather arm’s-length experiences.

The latter sentence is from Annie Proulx’s lovely The Shipping News, and that level of introspection isn’t entirely representative: She writes lots of evocative dialogue, too. But her prose is even, unhurried, almost lapping in its rhythm, and narrative comes second to mood. More fascinating than the passive protagonist, Quoyle, are the bits of Newfoundland mariners’ history, the minutiae of the tides and North Atlantic currents, the descriptions of various sailors’ knots and their relevance in the progression of the characters’ understanding of love. It’s a book of suspended moments, of hanging strands that finally coalesce as mysteriously (and amazingly) as the knots that dapple the pages.

Anyway, it’s January, and time to review this year’s prestigious Miramax/Lasse Halström picture, adapted inevitably from a critically acclaimed feminist/humanist best seller. As with The Cider House Rules (1999) and Chocolat (2000), The Shipping News opened at the very, very end of December in two markets, the better to enter the public’s consciousness at the exact moment that Academy Award nominations are being harvested. (Miramax is really going balls-out for Oscars this year, with four one-week-in-December releases, and that’s not counting the long, long, long platforming of its In the Bedroom, which only went into wide release last week.)

I liked Cider House, I hated Chocolat, and I half-like The Shipping News, which doesn’t really work but has a good cast and great craggy ocean-framed scenery. It’s one of those escape-from-civilization sagas in which a despairing hero (Kevin Spacey) and his young daughter return to their ancestral Newfoundland home (it’s in the northern tip, across from Labrador) in lieu of spiritual suicide and become awakened from the frigid sleep that has been their lives. Halström is an even-tempered storyteller—his strength is that he never lets anything bog down. But Proulx’s is a boggy sort of tale, and there are places where the narrative needs to catch its breath. A lot of the seminal events—near-drownings, resurrections, revelations of buried secrets—are well-done, but Hallström doesn’t linger purposefully enough in their aftermath. He hurries along as if toward some climactic explosion, which of course never comes. As the credits rolled, I saw an audience full of respectful shruggers.

It’s fun to see Cate Blanchett do a trashy-nympho turn as Quoyle’s first wife, Petal, and to get another glimpse of the likable Rhys Ifan (Hugh Grant’s cretinous flatmate in Notting Hill) as an inadvertent transplant (via boat wreck) to Newfoundland. I admired Julianne Moore for playing Wavey, the new woman in Quoyle’s life, in such an enigmatic, locked-away manner—it’s true to the character. But the movie sinks or swims on its Quoyle, and with Spacey, I’m afraid, it’s dashed against the rocks. Even great actors have limitations, and Spacey’s is that he can’t play a role that doesn’t tap into his anger. Trying to be mild and dopey, he lets his face go slack, knocks out the lower register in his voice, and mugs like crazy. He can’t show the ways in which Quoyle is transformed because he never lives inside the man. His awakening is from his own hammy shtick.

In “The Movie Club” two weeks ago I was brutally disrespectful toward Monster’s Ball (Lions Gate Films), and that was a mistake. After the sweetening and self-censorship in so many films, I should have recognized that the director, Marc Forster, risked much in making his protagonists (played by Billy Bob Thornton and Halle Berry) so cruel and abusive toward their children and so groggy in their repentance. I should have admitted that I don’t have a clue what the movie is saying, and whether its ultimate romanticism is meant to be a) ironic; b) hopeful; or c) both at once. I suspect the answer is c, but that’s a tough combination to pull off in such a draggy-realist mode and with a lead actress who’s so inept at portraying emotion. Monster’s Ball is full of longueurs and monosyllables and deliberate misframing, but the story is too garishly awful to qualify as a “slice of life.” When a movie wrenches you with the deaths of children then leaves you with nothing to take home but your confusion, it can make you thirsty for the blood of directors.