The Company of Wolves
the film that could be made about the figure of the wolf: contradictory
mythological associations (fear and desire, threat and attraction); the complex
and marvellous archaeology of stories told about the wolf down the ages; the
cinematic spectacle of wolves in motion … hunting, preying, spying, in packs …
The Company of Wolves, sadly, is not the film to realise such
imaginings. It is full of good, exciting intentions and hunches, which it
painstakingly underlines with each new scene. But it all seems to get bogged
down in those misty marshes so overdone by the production’s art department.
film demarcates for itself a very particular fictional territory – the kind we
associate with the novels and tales of its screenwriter, Angela Carter. It is
indeed concerned with the complex historical and mythical resonances of the
wolf figure. But, more centrally, it views them retrospectively, through an
entire series of current cultural obsessions – in particular, current
theorisations of female sexuality and desire. It is as if the old myths and
fairy tales were being re-read with modern, feminist eyes, turned over and made
strange in the process.
shall be guided through this territory via the unconscious of a pubescent girl
named Rosaleen (Sarah Patterson). What better psychic stage is there on which
to play out all the ambivalence and uncertainties of female sexuality? The Company of Wolves almost seems, at
times, like an attempt to represent the theories of Gilles Deleuze and Félix
Guattari (a clear influence on Carter’s later works), with their exhortations
to all people to “become woman” and “become animal”, to lose themselves on the
unpredictable paths of their migrating desires.
speak in the name of such a desire, to be itself a film overrun by unconscious
forces or drives – or to at least give that impression – The Company of Wolves must have a form suitable to the task. Hence,
the film will not be a single story, a single thesis, but a Chinese box of
multiple stories overlapping and dovetailing (think of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Arabian Nights ).
links between these stories and the pathway through them should not be clear
but, rather, unsettling, never quite decidable. And the viewer’s journey
through the film should itself be like a plunge into a collective unconscious
of myths and desires, somewhat irrational, playing on weird displacements of
fictional logic and startling associational leaps (think of Nicolas Roeg’s Eureka , or Yvonne Rainer’s Journeys from Berlin/1971 ). Thus, it should insinuate
the viewer into a dream-state, in which the dramatic principle of
verisimilitude (plausibility, realism) is well and truly lost by the end.
movie in this form would not only be a para-fiction, with stories spiralling
out from a central premise – perhaps never to comfortably return – but also
fundamentally ambiguous on the level of its theme or semantics. The meaning of
the twin figures of the wolf and the pubescent girl would never quite fall
finally into place. Rather, different meanings would be suggested, connoted,
played off against one another in an endless process of displacement and
undecidability (think of Alain Resnais’ Last
Year at Marienbad ). The film would not be arbitrarily playful or
meaningless, but would produce strange thrills, frissons of meanings, in which
the spectator might positively enjoy not entirely getting the point.
I read these intentions correctly, then the pretension of The Company of Wolves could only be this: to be a modernist film. Not a comfortable
children’s fantasy like E.T. the
Extra-Terrestrial (1982) or The
NeverEnding Story (1984), but an odd, disorienting object such as might be
carved by any of the filmmakers or writers cited above. The trouble with it is
symptomatically pinpointed precisely in the constant reflex it produces of such
cinematic memories and allusions (I’m certainly not alone in this reaction!).
In other words, it makes us wistfully recall those truly modernist works that do this kind of wild and/or playful
stuff a hundred times better.
The Company of Wolves wants to
be a film about desire. But it is altogether too academic and well-mannered – dare I say, too British? – for that. At least in this instance, Carter’s idea
of a modernist style is one that endlessly announces what it is doing, deliberating on its own exquisite playfulness.
spills over into Neil Jordan’s direction, which painfully emphasises every
twist in sight – each plunge into fantasy cued at length, each Chinese box
delicately fitted. Watching it, we long for a bit of real modernist pace, a
stray moment of crazy narrative acceleration, or a logical permutation to make
the mind boggle just a little. But no: The
Company of Wolves plods all the way to a shock ending – a final confusion
of reality and fantasy, a final blow against a simple or comfortable
interpretation of the fiction – which is hardly even surprising, let alone
as a straight fantasy film, leaving aside the modernist pretensions, The Company of Wolfs is far too reliant
on cliché – misty marshes, lusty maidens, a howling
synthesizer soundtrack – to ever effectively evoke a child’s or a teenager’s
inner fantasy life.
we are left remembering other films: Carlos Saura’s Cría cuervos (1976) or Roy V. Rowland’s The 5,000 Fingers of Dr T (1953). And, as a movie attempting to draw complex links
between fear and desire, sexual drives and gendered identities, nature and
culture, we have to prefer even the moody, tortured sexism of Paul Schrader’s Cat People (1982) to the academic
feminism of The Company of Wolves.
imagine … this film written by Italo Calvino and directed by Raúl Ruiz –
erudite and crazy at the same time. Then, really, we’d be in the company of
© Adrian Martin June 1985