“Why couldn’t she save herself?”
At the intersection of childhood and adulthood lies a dangerous place where the predators feed. In an era in which the fairy field is dominated by Disney, it is tempting to think of fairy tales as happy stories in which the prince and princess always get married and live happily ever after. Before you ride off into the land where fairy tales come true, you might want to revisit some of those tales.
Terrible things happen there.
The Company of Wolves is a tale of two sisters: one survives and one succumbs. Both are seduced by the fear and fascination of growing up. One plays at becoming an adult, but she is caught by the wolves and torn apart. The other finds her own wild nature – her sexuality – and opens to the wide world outside and inside herself.
The older sister’s name is Alice. This Alice doesn’t make it out of the hole.
Not so much a coming of age film as a legend about the ambivalence of puberty and the seduction and dangers of adulthood, with The Company of Wolves Jordan constructs an endlessly fascinating fairy tale set in both the modern era and the mythical past. The story begins as the heroine, Rosaleen, sleeps a fevered, restless sleep in her childhood bedroom, surrounded by creepy toys straight out of the Uncanny Valley. In her dream, Rosaleen’s sister Alice, clad in her modern-day attire of virginal white dress and red kitten heels, is run down by the creatures of the night. Rosaleen smiles at this fate. With dream logic, she then attends her dead sister’s funeral in a pre-industrial village haunted by the presence of wolves, both human and lupine. Her granny tries to protect her, telling her cautionary tales about what happens to those who stray from the path, or fall in with dangerous, hairy men whose brows meet in the middle.
Jordan, always at his best in the sexual shadow lands (I find his mainstream films unwatchable), uses supernatural, saturated color and layers of dream images and stories within stories to form a complex narrative about awakening sexuality. Like dream wisdom, the narrative follows non- linear logic; it can’t necessarily be understood rationally, but it can be known on an instinctive level. The explorations of Rosaleen’s medieval self tie together stories about a wife who unwisely marries a werewolf who abandons her on the wedding night to follow the call of nature; a priest’s illegitimate son who is given a gift by the devil which causes him to sprout chest hair while he screams in fear and pain; a knocked-up young peasant woman who takes revenge on her social superiors; and a wounded she-wolf who crawls out of the underworld to rest and heal in the sanctuary of a church before returning home.
Jordan relies on symbols throughout to anchor the different storylines. The color symbolism of red versus white is a constantly recurring theme. Dolls represent women whose sexual switches never get “turned on” – a lifeless failure to blossom. The ancient well at the center of the village also exists on the modern day manor’s grounds, and is the gate to hell out of which the injured wolf ascends and to which she returns. Rosaleen’s flirtations with a village boy and the huntsman she meets in the wood are reflected in the hand mirror which reveals her on-the-cusp sexual maturation. Another mirror, cracked and magical, allows the young peasant woman to see the high class wolves for the beasts they are, and thereby gives her power over them.
What is so refreshing about this fairy tale is how it defies the some of the conventions. In the oldest fairy tales, the mother often perpetrated starvation, torture, abandonment, and death upon her own child. Later versions either removed the mother figure entirely, or substituted a stepmother, a hag, or a witch. In contrast, Rosaleen’s mother is not only not absent, she actively protects her daughter’s wild nature and recognizes that women’s sexuality is just as strong a force as men’s. The heroine, Rosaleen, doesn’t die at the end, doesn’t play second fiddle to the Hero who goes out to slay the big bad wolf (there is no hero in this movie), and doesn’t need to be saved by anyone. The Granny, who represents the safe track, staying pure, staying on the path, staying away from the dangers of sex, is broken into shards like the porcelain doll type of woman she represents. That breakage also symbolizes the fragility of that kind of virtue.
Thirty years after the film was created, predators still prowl, looking for prey, only now the forest is so much safer than the streets. In the 1980’s, Neil Jordan framed the choice as stay pure and risk stagnation, or face the perils of sexuality and risk destruction. Today, however, adolescent girls routinely generate their own selfie-porn. In some of the early, oral versions of the Red Riding Hood myth, Red does a strip tease for the wolf, distracting him so she can save her own life – a kind of Scheherazade of the erotic. The original title of the story translates as Little Red Cap, surely an anatomical reference. Perhaps the danger is not so much that pubescent girls won’t fully develop their sexuality; it’s that they won’t fully develop anything else. The hazards are legion. In addition to the danger of being ripped apart, used, manipulated, and discarded, there is the risk of being consumed – by one’s own desire to be attractive.
The final scene, which shows a wolf breaking through a window into Rosaleen’s bedroom, is followed by a prophetic voice-over from Charles Perrault’s original fairy tale about the dangers of wolves that are hairy only on the inside. This is Jordan’s final warning that there are wolves in the woods – and in the houses.
Jordan’s film is one of the few wolf/werewolf movies in which the people don’t transform into wolves. The wolves get out, escaping through the human flesh which contained them and which is cast off as no longer needed. Even with thirty year-old special effects, Wolves does a good job of showing the agony of that molecular displacement.
The film is adapted from a story of the same name, plus a couple others, by British doyenne of revisionist fairy tales Angela Carter. UK theater group Burn the Curtain recently staged an outdoor, participatory “interactive promenade” based on the same story. The audience “runs” (or walks, depending on fitness level) with the wolves, while actors stage set pieces taken from the story at different places upon the path. The play is held in the woodlands of an estate. I suspect that the level of enjoyment depends in large part on the reactions of the other audience members; it could either be really great or really hokey. Maybe the thrill of it depends on how dangerous your fellow predators truly are.
After all, some people can’t be domesticated.