Blood and Chocolate

It is with some regret that I have to add “Blood & Chocolate” to the list of films with a trailer more exciting than the actual movie. With an iron-willed Vivian (Agnes Bruckner) telling her werewolf pack “your traditions can go to hell”, and the majestic “Stand my Ground” by Within Temptation playing in the crescendo, I’ll admit it was a tough one to live up to. Nonetheless directed with style and energy, as is always the case with German-born Katja von Garnier, the film is based upon the 1997 young adult novel by Annette Curtis Klause, although with several important changes. As such, it’s not so much an adaptation but instead a case of using the book as a starting point. When considering the ending of the book and what leads to it, the film is better viewed as a predictable tangent from its central dilemma: a 19 year-old girl/werewolf has to choose between respecting the traditions of her pack or giving in to a blossoming love for an American graphic novelist (Hugh Dancy), a “meat-boy” who could threaten the safety of her kind if he finds out the truth about her.

Set in present-day Bucharest (and considerably more flattering to the Romanian capital than the brief glimpse we saw in another recent film shot there, Ils), the story begins with a prologue about werewolves being persecuted: as a child, Vivian witnessed vigilantes hunting and killing her family in the wilds of Colorado. We move forward 10 years to Bucharest, where Vivian works at a chocolate shop and lives with her aunt Astrid (Katja Riemann with 95 % of the eyeliner budget). Contrary to a trouble-making group of her cousins called the Five, fronted by the hot-headed Rafe (a solid Bryan Dick), Vivian has always been very reluctant to accept her dual nature. The leader of the pack, Gabriel (Olivier Martinez, coming close to caricature but avoiding it with restraint), has chosen her as his future wife, but she wants none of it, especially not after she meets Aiden, the previously mentioned American meat-boy, in a church where he was drawing wolves. He has a fascination with the “loups-garous”, and much like her he’s looking to escape a path his family chose for him, so their bond develops out of this shared need to simply follow their hearts.

The film works best when it shows these two young people in love, out and about in Bucharest (the part where she shows him “the best view of the whole city” is simply beautiful, a lovely setting for their gothic-flavoured romance). And for a while, there is poignancy in the story of these star-crossed lovers and how it impacts the werewolf clan (especially the scene where Gabriel mourns a key background character he sent to tell Aiden to leave town and never come back, as well as the painful encounter that follows between Vivian and Aiden). Expertly handled by von Garnier, these moments feel as if they might take the film to a superior level, but as we get closer to the finish line the distance from the source novel becomes more blatant, notably through a jarring shootout sequence that knocks the movie down to no more than a small notch above average. That said, the movie has decently drawn characters and an attractive look. The pack transforms into actual wolves rather than hirsute beasts on two feet, which is a welcome change from most of the werewolf movies. The change from human to wolf has a seamless, ethereal quality that I initially considered as incongruously torment-free, but that I came to see as vaguely dreamlike and quite elegant.

If you haven’t seen von Garnier’s previous two features, I strongly recommend that you mosey on down to the Boite noire, folks, they’re very much worth your while. Strongly female-centric, Bandits (1997) and Iron-Jawed Angels (2004) revealed a major talent with a very dynamic style supporting heartfelt narrative threads. The first film is a touching travelogue of sorts about an all-girl rock band on the lam, with some innovative touches approaching a blissful surrealism, while the second is a captivating, thoroughly modern treatment of the American suffragette movement in the 1910s. Bruckner, who efficiently gives Vivian a gloomy and guarded demeanour, has a fabulous blend of looks and talent (witness her wonderful performances in Blue Car and last year’s Dreamland). She has good chemistry with Dancy (the prince in Ella Enchanted), and that’s part of the reason why it’s frustrating to see the film devolve into something conventional in the way that it does, muzzling to some degree the rich material found in the book. “We’re lost souls, Vivian… but at least we’re lost together”, Astrid says at one point. There’s a whole other movie to be found in those heavy words, and while it’s fairly good as it is, “Blood & Chocolate” would have benefited by pursuing that darker vein.

Review by Jean-François Tremblay