I think the best word for this action film is probably “sumptuous”: costumes, locations, sets, characters, all rich and detailed. Another word, sadly, is “gristly”: the sound effects were particularly, well, effective. They conveyed quite realistically the sound of human meaty bits being torn asunder: one could almost discern the difference between bone-crunching and ligament-tearing noises. Not that one wished to, of course.
One might also wish to close one’s eyes during the opening sequence, unless one has a very strong stomach. This is not because we leap straight into the action, following a victim up hill and down rather rocky and contusion-inducing dale. No, this is because we’re treated to a fast close-to-the-ground panning sweep (or should that be sweeping pan?) of French countryside. Both I and my compatriot, stout yeomen (or in my case, a stout yeowoman) all, barely restrained the urge to yunt all over the man sitting in front of us. I would have thought that this style of camerawork would have gone out of fashion in the many years since The Empire Strikes Back, but alas, this was not so. My advice is to look down, or take a bag.
Back to the story. For the action fans, the fight scenes were well done: good camerawork and professional fight choreography make a world of difference. Mark Dacascos looked smooth, lean, and quite competent as the multi-talented Mani, an Iroquois brought to France by his blood brother, Fronsac (played by Samuel Le Bihan). The technical interest was maintained through this very long film by use of a variety of weaponry and fight styles, which kept the fights varied.
For those searching for visual artistry, you’ll find enough to choke on here: the costumes were beautiful (at least the rich people’s costumes), and the locations were breathtaking. Shots of French wooded countryside at dawn, mist creeping slowly, vied with the manicured perfection of the French court gardens. A profusion of castles and manors, tenanted or ruined, jostled each other for our attention. One shot in particular nearly made me cry: riders at dusk, approaching a castle from below. Seen framed in trees, and semi-silhouetted against the sky, the glow of candles in the various windows ably conveyed the homesick yearning that riders must have felt on seeing such a view.
I was interested, too, in the colour palette used. Countryside scenes were in soft browns and greys, except for the hunt, which featured splashes of red (or perhaps “hunting pink” is the more appropriate term). The court was all pastels, like a neo-classical painting, with ivy draped over balconies in the chambers, and softly-toned and whitely-painted courtiers cautious not to stand out. Fireplaces stained some rooms a lurid red, while the glory of rich reds and golds painted the brothel: rococo ornamentation, lush fabrics, and opulent whores (it’s just occurred to me: why was there such an opulent brothel in such a small town?).
And then there’s the characters. French cinema seems to have a patent on all the best faces. I do not mean, of course, the prettiest: far from it. I mean the faces with the most character, the most interest. Unlike actors in a national cinema which shall remain nameless, these people looked the part. I could believe that the Intendent was a man of stern character able to take on such a high office; that the mother of Marianne was one of the privileged elite born into a heritage spanning centuries; that the horse doctor was a common man with an uncommon skill.
The finest face, and one of the finest performances, belonged to Vincent Cassel, who made the role of Jean Francois his own. He and the writer and director conspired to give us a wonderful character who refused to be pinned down, and against whom many of the others paled. It was a tad disappointing that he didn’t get more screen time, but then Fronsac was the hero.
I may diverge from the general opinion when I start on the Beast: yes yes yes, all very fine CGI, no doubt, but to me it just looked like a very large armadillo. It didn’t move like one, of course: it moved like one of the gatekeeping beasties in Ghostbusters, and that put me off yet again. Perhaps I’m old-fashioned, but but I think that it might have been better to have the Beast as a shadowy, less sharply-realised, creature.
Overall, though, I enjoyed it quite a bit, and can recommend it to anyone who wants to see fighting, grue, blindingly beautiful scenery, excellent camera work, lush costumes, fine actors, and the sort of tense drama-thriller than only the French can do.