Friday, 5 January 2018


The deep midwinter seemed the right time to post this. Beware, those who keep to this path, of eyebrows that meet and YE OLDE PLOT SPOILERS

Us aesthetes have all become somewhat used to leaving cinemas sagely proclaiming “of course it wasn’t as good as the book”. Because of course a book springs from a single brain, while by necessity a film reaches us through many cooks. But like any rule exceptions apply…

‘The Company of Wolves’ (1984) originated in three short stories written by Angela Carter, and published in ‘The Bloody Chamber’ (1979). And, despite lacking her strong prose style, rich without being flamboyant, it’s the film version which should be seen as definitive. For one thing Carter co-wrote the screenplay. (With director Neil Jordan, in his second ever feature.) Plus, rather than condensing down, it was able to extend and open up the original stories.

A 1980 radio version has already devised the nested structure; a reworking of Red Riding Hood (from which the film takes it’s title) becomes the main narrative, while the others are told diegitically by characters within it. The film then expanded the stories and built a framing device around this main narrative, where an adolescent girl in ‘our’ world is witnessed dreaming all this.

There’d been a spate of werewolf films at the start of the Eighties, mostly sparked by ‘American Werewolf in London’ (1981). But ‘Company of Wolves’ came later and was quite distinct from them. As the two titles suggest, one juxapositionally brought supernatural horrors into a recognisably modern world. While the other takes place within a fantastical world of forest-dwelling peasants. It’s unabashed symbolism and disinterest in realism is perhaps closer to films such as ‘Masque of the Red Death’ (1964). As Jordan put it: 
“The visual design was an integral part of the script. It was written and imagined with a heightened sense of reality in mind.”

But it doesn’t stop at such comparisons and often resembles fully fledged Surrealist films, such as Svankmajer’s ‘Alice’ (1988). And this is most obvious by the way the border between dream and waking worlds is not the neat airlock of the Narnian wardrobe but a porous and shifting hinterland. This is the very essence of what makes Carter’s work surreal, in fact it’s the very essence of Surrealism. Those floppy clocks and lobster telephones are merely its furniture.

As a primer of the film the FAQs on IMDB are surprisingly good, and can even be read through as an essay. But they also epitomise a common weakness. People rush to analyse the tales, as if the main story was merely somewhere to embed them.

Yet even the original stories are told with an active narrative voice, emulating folk tales, which already borders on metafiction. While this rush throws away the greater part of the film, which seems somewhat wasteful. Worse, it neglects a key question, in fact a key question whenever a story is being told – who is telling it and in what context. To quote Jordan again: 
“It's a film about storytelling, the central character being the grandmother [below]. It's about the use of stories.”

And who is this central character, and how does she use stories? She tells them to grand-daughter Rosaleen, dreamer Alice appearing in her own dream. Old she may be, but she’s no conservative. She’s frank speaking and distrustful of priests. Her wedding story, as with all her stories, is gender based - the wronged peasant woman made pregnant then ditched by the toff. But it’s also about class. The wedding party contains women beyond the obligatory bride. And, once they’re all transformed into beasts (below), the all-male servants bow courteously to the witchy peasant woman then open a bottle of bubbly for themselves. Here the predatory, animalistic wolves are the upper classes, their manners and fine ways a thin disguise for the most ravenous canines.

While the marriage story (above) might initially seem Freudian. We all know how horror films work, surely this writes itself. In his wedding bed, at the height of his ardour the amorous husband transforms into a savage beast. But not only is that not what happens, it’s strangely ambiguous when his transformation takes place. Ostensibly, he’s taken by wolves on the eve of his nuptials, when he nips out for a piss. Yet he’s played as a shady character from the get-go, skulking in the shadows rather than eager to get conjugal, pointedly described from the outset as “a travelling man”. His line about a “call of nature”, made after he spies the full moon, suggests he leaves the hut in order to become a wolf rather than have it happen to him. He is, in short, suspect from the start.

But perhaps most interesting is the story of the lad who meets the Devil (above). Here puberty isn’t a change which comes from within but is imposed from without. And, like any gift from the Devil, promises power but soon turns into something agonising. And of course puberty can feel like that to someone undergoing it; changes are sprung on you without you asking for them or even necessarily understanding what they are.

The through line is that Grandma’s stories, like her life, follow custom. She tells Rosaleen “never stray from the path, never eat a windfall apple and never trust a man whose eyebrows meet in the middle.” The peasant woman should have avoided getting pregnant, the husband stayed indoors and pissed in a pot, the lad not gone out and met the Devil.

While held in opposition to the Grandmother is the Mother. They’re in precisely two scenes together, the funeral and the church, and they interact in neither. Rosaleen comments to her Mother “she may not have a kind word for you, but she's always been good to me.” The oroginal script (published in ’The Curious Room’, 1997) spells out “she’s Daddy’s Mummy, and you took her beloved boy away from her.”

And, rather than tell any stories of her own, her Mother flatly warns Rosaleen not to believe in the things. “You pay too much attention to your Granny. She knows a lot, but she doesn't know everything…. If there is a beast inside every man, he meets his match in the beast inside of every woman."

It’s not a film which reduces to one reading. And one of those readings would be that it sums up the paradox of parenting by splitting it into two characters. The Grandma is protective, the Mother enabling. When at Grandma’s Rosaleen sleeps in her bed. When at home, she watches from her own bed as her parents make out. Grandma tempers the child’s natural curiosity with cautionary tales, the Mother literally demonstrates to her the facts of life. Carter has described the stories as “Granny’s strategy to keep the child to herself.”

But there’s another reading… Carter’s interest in folk tales later extended to compiling two collections for Virago. In her introduction to the first (1991) she points out “a European convention of an archetypal female storyteller, ‘Mother Goose’ in English, ‘Ma Mere L’Oie’ in French, an old woman sitting by the fireside, spinning...”

And Grandma, described in the script as “an anachronistic old lady”, is that archetype - the voice of folk tradition. The parents, the sister... all are dream counterpoints to real world characters. Even the wolf relates to the family dog. Whereas Grandma reduces to a doll in the child’s room, which smashes and reveals itself to be an empty vessel.

In Marina Warner’s introduction to the second collection (published the following year to the first and, sadly, after Carter’s death) she says of their compiler “she turns topsy-turvy some cautionary folk tales and shakes out the fear and dislike of women they once expressed to create a new set of values, about strong, outspoken, zestful, sexual women who can’t be kept down.” And indeed many of the tales do spell out the dire consequences of not following custom. The African ’Tale of An Old Woman’, for example, ends “she dwelt in poverty till she died, because she did not heed the instruction given to her by the tree.”

The film takes on the conceit of a modern adolescent girl encountering the old folk tales, and trying to make sense of them. (We’re to assume, I think, this is a fresh encounter. So she’s somehow skipped the emaciated Disney versions.) Naturally she does this by, through her imagination, entering their world. But she enters it not as a passive witness but with her own mind. Told early in the film that her sister had no-one to save her from the ravanous wolves she replies “why couldn’t she save herself?”

So she starts to tell her own stories. Which correlates to her going off the path. She’s already intuited a part of her lies out there in the forest. The first time she strays, we naturally expect a horror film scenario to ensue, akin to her sister’s earlier demise. Instead the film switches on us, from Freudian to Jungian, as she finds the nest of eggs (above). When they crack open to reveal mini-statues of human babies, she calmly takes one home to show her mother, unconcerned by the threat of wolves which has everyone else so exercised.

Then the next time, she does meet the wolf - disguised as a huntsman (above). While others follow the customary routes, he makes his own paths and boasts of the compass which allows him to do so. The film associates horror with modernity, the Devil is shown chauffeur-driven in a Rolls Royce. And the compass is presented, quite literally presented, as a novel object.

She doesn’t defeat the wolf by virtue, in fact she willingly burns the protective red shawl her Granny has knitted her. Nor doe she defeat him by ingenuity. (Or rather she does, then decides not to press her advantage.) But neither does the wolf corrupt her. Instead she tells it a story. 

There’s been a kind of transitional point where she tells a story to her mother, but repeats one of Grandmas. This one is hers. It both articulates her dilemma and accentuates the nature of a thing between. It’s about a she-wolf who attempts to return to “the world above”. But of course she can’t. Unrecognised, she’s shot at. Ironically only the Priest gets it. “Are you God's work, or the Devil's? Oh, what do I care whose work you are?”

In this, a fantasy scenario to explain her situation, inside a fantasy scenario to explain her situation, lies the central paradox of the film. Finding him a better option than the “clowns” of her village, she willingly corrupts herself. Rosaleen has hit on that ‘horror’ is really maturity. But she also knows the one aspect of it that is genuinely horrific, that it’s a one-way street. If she runs off with the wolf, there’s no coming back.

And adolescence is like this. Her bedroom (in the real world) mixes up make-up and dresses with teddy bears. Described in the script as “adolescent turbulence”, it’s itself a thing between. In the earlier radio version she describes herself: “I’m twelve going on thirteen, thirteen going on fourteen… the hinge of your life, when you’re neither one thing nor the other, not child nor woman, some magic inbetween thing, an egg that holds its own future.”

And the setting is like this. The original stories are all set in winter and frequently at the solstice, with provides the same metaphor. The radio version describes it as “the hinge of the year, the time when things don’t fit well together, when the door of the year is sufficiently ajar to let all kinds of beings that have no proper place in the world slip through”. And the film is like this, a mash-up of surrealist art movie with cheap horror flick. Carter had described it as “perpetually in flux”.

And werewolves are the epitome of this. Earlier the father chops a forepaw from a wolf, which becomes a human hand. Seeing more curious than afraid, Rosaleen asks him if it should be buried or thrown on the fire - and he responds by doing the latter. But this is clearly a get-out, a way of ridding yourself of the thing and thereby denying its uncategorisable nature. Later she asks the Huntsman essentially the same question:

“Are you our kind, or their kind?” 
“Not one kind or the other. Both.” 
“Then where do you live? In our world, or in theirs?” 
“I come and go between them. My home is nowhere.”

If Grandma’s cautionary tales always portray men in a negative light, the problem isn’t that this unfairly disparages the male sex. In this female-centred film, it’s that this world of custom becomes limiting to Rosaleen – and so she decides to leave. Normally, you need to qualify the distinction between female-centred and feminist. It may be refreshing and appealing that Katniss is the protagonist of ’The Hunger Games’ or Rey of ’The Force Awakens’, but that alone doesn’t make them feminist films. Here, quite happily, is one time you don’t.

The difference is that Rosaleen doesn’t just act heroically. In fact as she rejects the whole system of morality around her, arguably she doesn’t act heroically at all. But in a sense that’s the point. She takes herself as her subject, and refuses to accept a narrative which assigns her the role of innocent victim. In short, she liberates herself.

Yet at the same time there’s a sense of inevitability to it all. How could things have ended up any other way? It’s no hippyish celebration of ‘natural’ unbridled sexuality. In perhaps another echo of Surrealism sexuality is a form of power, which makes it transformative, but also a combination of dangerous and irrepressible. Rosaleen and the wolf take up a new life, which is not the same thing as living happy ever after.

Rosaleen comments sympathetically on the wolves howling because they’re out there in the cold, before she willingly goes to join them. And this seems to echo a passage in the original story:

“That long-drawn, wavering howl has, for all its fearful resonance, some inherent sadness in it, as if the beasts would love to be less beastly if only they knew how and never cease to mourn their own condition. There is a vast melancholy in the canticles of the wolves, melancholy infinite as the forest, endless as these long nights of winter and yet that ghastly sadness, that mourning for their own, irremediable appetites, can never move the heart for not one phrase in it hints at the possibility of redemption.”

Carter also says in her her Virago introduction “if many stories end with a wedding, don’t forget how many start with a death.” And this film starts with a death, then ends with a (sort of) wedding that also is a kind of death. As the Magnetic Fields sang on ’I Was Born’ “growing older is killing a child.”

And the closing sequence, with the avaricious wolves bursting into Alice’s bedroom in the real world, perhaps illustrates the inherent danger of sexuality while literalising the idea maturity kills the child. And giving Alice and Rosaleen different names does suggest Rosaleen is not Alice transposed into a dream world, but a projection, the person Alice would like to be. 

Alas, however, it also seems a retreat into more conventional horror film fare. Asked about this in an interview, Carter smiled and replied “you’ll have to talk to Neil about that”. For her original script had Alice diving from her bed, the floor turning to water as she hits it. Which, as well as echoing the well of the Wolf Alice story, sounds a much more nuanced and ambiguous ending. In that ending the ‘real’ world is not invaded but distorts, becomes dream. 

Yet this had to be abandoned through cost concerns, and perhaps what we got was a workaround inserted simply because it was workable. Certainly, when you first watch the film it doesn’t seem to jar. The problems arise more as you reflect on it after the credits have run.

Otherwise unattributed quotes from 
this vidclip.

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