Grade: B

Samuel Johnson is reputed to have called opera “a huge and irrational entertainment,” and it’s a description that may well be applied to Christophe Gans’ magnificently extravagant piece of period claptrap–a film that’s delightfully bad and, for the most part, deliciously entertaining. Filled with overwrought gestures, florid dialogue, oversized emotions and elaborate sets and costumes, “Brotherhood of the Wolf” is–if you’ll forgive the pun on the original title–as loopy a picture as has come along since Roman Polanski’s “The Fearless Vampire Killers (or: Pardon Me, But Your Teeth are in My Neck)” of 1967; and though not as obviously comic, it’s nearly as much fun. It’s a mad melange of monster movie, romance, kung-fu flick, eighteenth-century bodice-buster, and secret-agent thriller; and just when you think it’s gotten about as nutty as possible, the script winds up as a confrontation between Enlightenment philosophy and religious obscurantism. Goofy, yes–but also peculiarly exhilarating.

The picture is set in a rural region of France in 1765. A fearsome beast is roaming the countryside chawing away at the hapless peasantry (the first scene introduces the unseen creature in a land-based version of the “Jaws” opening, as it pursues and devours a winsome lass on a mountain peak), and the royal guards seem incapable of dealing with the menace. Enter the king’s special envoy Gregoire de Fronsac (Samuel Le Bihan), a student of enlightenment humanism who’s also been steeled by his service in the French-and-Indian War. He’s accompanied by the inscrutable Mani (Mark Dacascos), a laconic native American (no doubt as silent as he is because of Dacascos’ marginal French) who’s returned from the New World with him and is both a mystic and a master of martial-arts moves. The duo become involved in tracking down the monster, whose rampages are undermining royal power. In the course of their investigations, Gregoire becomes involved with Marianne de Morangais (Emilie Dequenne), the daughter of the local count (Jean Yanne), while being treated with ostentatious contempt by her sneering, one-armed brother Jean-Francois (Vincent Cassel). As matters proceed the enigmatic mistress of the local brothel, Sylvia (Monica Bellucci), enters the picture, as also do a host of local secular and ecclesiastical notables, in particular the opinionated Sardis (Jean-Francois Steverin), who–like so many conservatives–takes umbrage at Gregoire’s liberal views. There are frenzied chases, graphic torture scenes, sumptuous bordello sequences, bucolic romantic interludes and pseudo-mystical moments, among other things, before the whole affair winds up with an apparent death and rebirth, the revelation of a mad plot involving some grosteque gypsies and a papal spy, and the unveiling of a religious cult whose membership meets in garb that looks left over from the orgy in “Eyes Wide Shut.”

As a whole “Brotherhood of the Wolf” resembles a mad dream, cobbling together totally incongruous elements into a fragmented plot that is then played out in hushed, hallucinatory tones. It shouldn’t work at all, and quite a few viewers will probably find it a hopelessly indigestible stew. If you’re in the proper mood, however, it may strike you as mesmerizing despite (or perhap because of) its obvious oddity–one of those great, extravagant pieces of cinematic lunacy that somehow get made every few years and can’t help but fascinate even as they grow more and more objectively awful. (Tobe Hooper’s outrageous 1985 “Lifeforce,” a combination of “Aliens” sci-fi, vampire movie and Armageddon tale, is a good example.) By the time Gans’ absurd epic draws to a close (and even its adherents will feel that, at nearly two-and-a-half hours, it does dawdle a bit), you’ll doubtlessly be chuckling–perhaps more in admiration at its audacity than in derision. Certainly the cast plays all of the nonsense with panache, managing to keep straight faces even at the most idiotic moments. Dacascos, in particular, stands out, obviously pleased at getting an opportunity to show off his physical prowess in something other that direct-to-cable kung-fu fare. Technically the film is as opulent and eye-catching as one could wish; all the designers deserve credit, as does cinematographer Dan Laustsen, who captures some wonderfully evocative widescreen images. On the other hand, it must be admitted that the special-effect beastie (from the Jim Henson stable) isn’t remotely convincing (a trait it shares with the revelation concerning its nature); but in a picture like this, that’s part of the charm. When a movie is a medley of elements drawn from such disparate sources as “Wolfen,” “The Last of the Mohicans,” spaghetti westerns, Bruce Lee actioners and eighteenth-century swashbucklers, authenticity is the last thing one wants.

There are a couple of small points about “Brotherhood of the Wolf” that should not go unnoticed. It seems utterly right, for instance, that one of the bit players bears the unlikely name of Jean- Loup Wolff. And the subtitles offer periodic bursts of delightful mistranslation (one hopes, probably without justification, that they’re intentional)–the sort of mangled English that’s ordinarily confined to menus in Chinese restaurants. We’re solemnly informed, among other things, that the horrible beast being tracked “prays on the peasants” (perhaps a jocular allusion to the religious subplot), and that one is likely to “reap what you’ve sewn.” Ah, those wacky French: they must have grown all those exquisite duds in their fields!