The Company of Wolves

(Neil Jordan, UK, 1984)


Imagine 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.


The 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.


We 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.


To 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 [1974]).


The 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 [1983], or Yvonne Rainer’s Journeys from Berlin/1971 [1980]). 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.


A 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 [1961]). 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.


If 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.


This 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 disturbing.


Even 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.


Again, 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.


But 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 wolves.

MORE Jordan: The Butcher Boy, The Crying Game, In Dreams, Michael Collins, Greta

© Adrian Martin June 1985

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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