*** This review may contain spoilers ***
'Le Pacte des Loups' takes the Beast of the Gévaudan (to which over 100
deaths were attributed 1764-67) as the starting-point for a thrilling
action-adventure fantasy. 'The Hound of the Baskervilles' meets a
'Crouching Tiger' for a 'Dangerous Liaison' with 'The Last of the
Mohicans' in 'Sleepy Hollow'. Result: an exciting, beautifully
photographed and well-acted film.
The film opens during the French Revolution: a middle-aged gentleman writes his memoirs, while a hostile mob, singing "Ça ira", gathers outside his home. Only towards the end will we know for certain which of our protagonists he is.
25 years previously, a mysterious Beast terrorises the Gévaudan. Strangers avoid the region - except for the Chevalier Grégoire de Fronsac and his Iroquois friend Mani. After rescuing peasant animal-healer Jean Chastel and his beautiful, mute daughter (ironically nicknamed 'The Gossip') from some men in drag, Grégoire and Mani stay with the Marquis d'Apcher and his grandson Thomas.
Grégoire, a naturalist from the King's Gardens, has been sent to return the Beast (preferably stuffed) to the royal collection. He is a religious sceptic and libertine, representing rationality and Enlightenment values. Mani, a medicine-man and warrior who became his blood-brother during the Seven Years' War, is attuned to the natural world: his totem animal is the wolf. Together, these embodiments of Reason and Rousseauesque proto-Romanticism make a formidable team.
Grégoire's Parisian scepticism ruffles the reactionary local clergy and nobles, including Father Henri Sardis, and the pious Geneviève, Comtesse de Morangias. Her husband the Comte warns that a Papal spy is also investigating the case. Their son, Jean-François, seems at first a potential ally. An ex-naval officer, maimed by a lion in Africa, he is courageous and witty - but has secret torments.... Why does he resent the developing attraction between his sister Marianne and Grégoire? Who is the Italian courtesan, Sylvia, who ensnares Grégoire at the brothel in Mende? Whom can Grégoire and Mani trust? While a book by the mysterious 'The Wolves of God' attacks the King and calls the Beast's predations a divine judgement on the nation, the killings continue.
Cue thrilling hunts, battles with Gypsies, treachery, murder, poisoning, madness, incest, clerical conspiracies, heresy, and trick-weaponry any 18C James Bond would covet. There is a spectacularly acrobatic climactic sword-fight in a ruined church, a happy ending for two characters, while our narrator, at last identified, 25 years later goes bravely to his doom.
The film is lavishly produced and filmed, and splendidly acted. Some have thought Samuel Le Bihan insufficiently glamorous as Grégoire: but glamour is not a trait I expect in an 18C natural historian, and I found him likable and credible. The problem is, the other two leading men are so striking and charismatic that he is overshadowed. This is no criticism of him as an actor: simply that his character is inherently less showy.
Mark Dacascos' wolf-shaman warrior Mani is engaging: serenely beautiful, thoughtful, yet dynamic in action. He is a man of few, but telling words, and powerful presence: he expresses so much with his eyes that one believes his ability to communicate with trees, birds and wolves. Emilie Dequenne (Marianne) grows in courage and maturity as the film progresses. Jérémie Renier (Thomas) is an appealing ingénu.
But real-life couple Vincent Cassel (Jean-François) and Monica Bellucci (Sylvia) steal the show. Both their characters rely, literally and metaphorically, on masks to conceal loyalties, emotions, and - in Jean-François' case - insanity: both actors convey these complexities with panache. Cassel combines extraordinary emotional range with terrific swashbuckling, and ultimately attains 'tragic villain' stature. (Having been a lion's chew-toy would, I suspect, be enough to derange most people.) He also looks strikingly handsome in 18C costume. Bellucci is superb as Sylvia the courtesan/spy - like a beautiful but deadly snake. She's glamorous, intelligent, powerful, dangerous; sexy, but no mere sex-object: one of the best heroines of any film I saw in 2001.
The most familiar face in the supporting cast is Edith Scob ('Eyes Without a Face') as Comtesse Geneviève: a mother you would *not* want making your cocoa. Jean Yanne plays her long-suffering, amiable husband. Virginie Darmon, as Chastel's mute, epileptic daughter, is a haunting, feral presence. Possibly more could have been made of her implied attraction to Mani, a fellow outsider.
The mystery of the Beast's identity is preserved by its disguise - more effective than revealing it to be "only a wolf/lion/hyena/white rabbit", & c. The Jim Henson Workshop brings it to life as a tormented creature for which, at the end, we have some pity. The live animal cast must also be mentioned with some credit: Mani's spirit-wolf is beautiful!
As with 'Sleepy Hollow', 'Pacte's genre-bending, fantastic approach immunises it against those criticisms regarding accuracy and anachronism which 'realistic' historical dramas court. But it was good to hear Occitan spoken by a child survivor in hospital, and I enjoyed the scene in the ruined church which placed the story in a longer continuum of heresy and religious violence. As Mani senses, and Marianne explains, the church had been the site of a massacre of Cathars in 13C by the Knights Templar (in turn judicially murdered on heresy charges a century later). The ruin then becomes the site of the meetings of the 'Wolves of God' and of the dramatic climax. Some viewer criticisms of Grégoire's visits to Sylvia while he is courting Marianne show ignorance of 18C social mores: since unmarried girls of good family were meant to be chaste before marriage, their lovers would turn to professionals for sex.
My main quibble is one of the final twists, when the script backs away from a romantic tragedy which would have strengthened the already poignant ending. I wonder whether a preview audience is to blame? Even so, 'Pacte' should have garnered the international plaudits and awards heaped instead on 'Le Fabuleux Destin d'Amélie Poulain' - who surely would have been Beast-food in the 1760s Gévaudan!
|Plot summary||Plot synopsis||Ratings|
|Awards||External reviews||Parents Guide|
|Official site||Plot keywords||Main details|
|Your user reviews||Your vote history|