Tuesday, 10 June 2014

IRISH REVIEW: The Company of Wolves (1984)

Neil Jordan’s second feature certainly established him as a filmmaker who wasn’t afraid to try new things and The Company of Wolves is certainly a very different film from Angel. But is it any good?

A Freudian retelling of the Little Red Riding Hood fairy tale, the film begins with a sleeping Rosaleen (Sarah Patterson), who has just stolen her sister’s lipstick. She dreams that she lives in an alternate, fairy tale world. She lives in a village constantly under threat from a large population of wolves who live in the woods. Rosaleen’s Granny (Angela Lansbury) tells her a series of stories designed to make Rosaleen cautious of the woods and the wolves inside, but which are also intended to make her wary for her growing sexuality and potentially predatory boys. Rosaleen takes note of these stories but she also has an independent streak and so when she meets the sinister Huntsman (Micha Bergese) in the woods, she is more intrigued than frightened.

The film is based on a screenplay by Jordan and Angela Carter and takes as its inspiration stories by Carter. Carter’s intention with these stories was to rewrite famous fairy tales from a less conservative and oppressive slant. She found that fairy tales were designed to teach women to fear their sexuality and taught them submissiveness. In her stories, which were loaded with Freudian imagery, the female characters are far from passive and the stories encourage women not to fear their sexuality but to take control of it. Essentially, her stories were modern, feminist version of the ancient fairy tales. The Company of Wolves sets out to do the same thing, and all of the typical elements of the fairy tale are present, albeit presented from a Freudian perspective and with a dream-like feel.

As interesting as this may sound, it is rather unsatisfying. The Freudian imagery is over-used and dated – films had been drawing parallels with Freud’s writings for years and Jordan doesn’t offer anything particularly new. The film’s symbolism is also heavy-handed. The phrase “Don’t stray from the path” – though taken from the original versions of the Little Red Riding Hood tale – and often repeated by Granny is so clearly meant to represent the rules and limits placed on women in male dominated society that it’s lack of subtlety only causes one to roll their eyes at its every repetition. Granny is here an ambiguous figure – being both loving and restrictive or, in other words, a parent. The stories that Granny tells explicitly link sex with danger, violence and death – and never with love – while the stories Rosaleen tells represent instead the power of women, particularly a story in which a wronged peasant woman somehow turns her rich abusers into wolves – the wolf (usually a symbol of predatory sexuality) presumably taking on a new significance here. This stuff, though interesting in a surface kind of way, is ultimately over-subscribed. In this day and age, how many are truly convinced that red represents a budding sexuality via menstrual blood or that fruit represents sexual organs?

Neil Jordan has claimed that the appeal he finds in the film is not the heavy Freudian symbolism, but instead the simple joys of storytelling. This argument is not wholly convincing but it does point towards the most interesting thing about The Company of Wolves. In the first half of the film, Rosaleen is told stories that are clearly intended as cautionary tales to guide her through puberty and into adulthood – a patriarchal society that is not too interested in raising strong, independent women is evident. But when she starts to tell her own stories, she takes control of her own destiny (such as it is) and reclaims certain desires as her own and not the dangerous evils that she has been taught to avoid. The film then shows the regenerative qualities of fiction, particularly in making up one’s own fictions. The film delights ultimately in making an oppressive story (Little Red Riding Hood) into a story of sexual awakening and power.

None of which particularly works with the jarring ending, in which Rosaleen reawakens from her dream at a point where she has finally become a woman in control (as represented by her becoming a wolf), only to see a wolf entering her room (read the maturation of dream Rosaleen impacting onto real life Rosaleen) and start screaming, horrified. Hardly a feminist ending. Taken together with the fact that while in the original fairy tale Red Riding Hood is either killed or saved by a man, in the film’s version she overcomes a man but nonetheless becomes a wolf on his terms, not particularly on her own. Surely this means that the meaning of the film’s version of the tale is not particularly better than those that came before, since Red Riding Hood is still waiting for a man to act for her in both cases – either to save her or point the way for her passage into womanhood.

Also problematic, and leaving the symbolism aside, is the film’s dream-like style, in which scenes follow on from each other in a off-kilter, irrational way intended to reflect the pacing of (or lack of) a dream. This has also been done before, though here it is very distancing device, which keeps one outside the film rather than inside, like listening to two people who know each other so well that their conversation is impenetrable to anyone else. Like a lot of Neil Jordan’s films, it is very cerebral and not particularly welcoming.

As interesting as the film may or may not be, it feels badly thought out. The ending would seem to be directly contradictory to all that came before and the symbolism is so obvious and so dated that it just isn’t convincing. Nonetheless, it is a fairly original film from a filmmaker who is clearly trying something new, which is something that remains worth celebrating since it is now so rare.

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