Monday, 2 January 2017

We Don't Go Back – Guest Post: The Company of Wolves (1984)

A guest post, this time on Angela Carter's The Company of Wolves. It's by Monique Lacoste, who I've known for maybe 13 years, although the last time we saw each other in person was when she very kindly let me stay at her home, then in Los Angeles, in 2005.

Monique is one of the smartest, funniest, and most courageous people I know. She describes herself a media scholar and student botherer who loves movies and cultural criticism. Monique says that she has been known to turn into a werewolf when provoked.

Monique has taken her brief much more seriously than I usually do (this is the first film article I've posted that has a proper bibliography!) and there's some real meat here.

The complexities of structure in The Company of Wolves allow for the navigation of a landscape of dreams, and the film's isolated geography, with a sense of combined proximity and distance so like the British countryside, lies in the territory of an adolescent imagination. In many ways it's a companion to Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, and several scenes are direct callbacks to that strange, awkward little film.

Enough of me. Today we're here for Monique.

Many doors stand ajar; others beg to be unlocked. What is in the forbidden room? Something different for everyone, but something you need to know and will never find out unless you step across the threshold. If you are a man, the bad female character in a novel may be -- in Jungian terms -- your anima; but if you're a woman, the bad female character is your shadow; and as we know from the Offenbach opera Tales of Hoffman, she who loses her shadow also loses her soul.
– Margaret Atwood
Toys. Just toys.
My life is punctuated by recurring nightmares. While they change over time to reflect the needs and anxieties of each period, the most frightening ones happened during my adolescence. These dreams have stuck with me long after the emotional intensity of adolescence that makes every moment seem both operatic and exquisite has faded and been replaced with an adult’s more tempered feelings.
Rosaleen dreams.
I was reminded of one of these dreams recently while watching Neil Jordan’s fascinating and beautiful 1984 film, The Company of Wolves. In one scene, an adolescent boy, the bastard son of a priest, meets the devil in the woods. The devil gives him a tonic. When the boy applies it to his chest, hair begins to grow. The boy screams and, in response, the forest floor sprouts vines that wrap around his legs and pin him to the earth. For years, I had a similar dream: burly vines growing from a forest floor, pulling me into the earth, while a faceless stranger watches from deeper in the forest. Not only does the similarity of this imagery provoke a deep, visceral response to this film, but it reminds me why, alongside romance, horror is the genre wherein the complex terrain of women’s emotional lives is most often explored: for many women, coming-of-age is nothing short of a nightmare.
Terence Stamp as the Devil (Rosaleen is driving the car).
Based on a series of short stories by Angela Carter, The Company of Wolves is a modern twist on werewolf fairy tales, chief among them Little Red Riding Hood, with a Chinese box structure. The framing narrative concerns Rosaleen, played by 12 year-old Sarah Patterson. Rosaleen’s anxieties and curiosities about her burgeoning adolescence are explored in the lush and fraught landscape of her dream world. After feuding with her older sister, Rosaleen falls asleep and dreams that she lives in an 18th century village in the middle of a dark and forbidding forest. Her Granny, played by the splendid Angela Lansbury, tells her stories about the dangerous wolves, and men, who threaten careless women. Dream Rosaleen responds with stories of her own, stories that present a more complex and dynamic life for the women at their center. In the end, her confrontation with the Huntsman/werewolf results not in death for either of them, but in Rosaleen’s transformation into a wolf.

The duality of the two Rosaleens – one the dreamer and the other the dreamt – makes the piece particularly Gothic, as the objects, emotional struggles, and events of the two worlds become more and more entwined over the course of the film. This film is unique in that it takes the psychosexual dynamics of fairy tales as a serious point of inquiry and contestation. Carter spoke of the inspiration for her stories, and thus the film based on them, in Fireworks, saying:
“I’d always been fond of Poe, and Hoffman – Gothic tales, cruel tales, tales of wonder, tales of terror, fabulous narratives that deal directly with the imagery of the unconscious… The Gothic tradition in which Poe writes ... retains a singular moral function – that of provoking unease. The tale has relations with subliterary forms of pornography, ballad and dream ... ”
Carter wants to provoke unease with her work. In The Company of Wolves, she and Jordan do just that by adding touches of surrealism to their tales of terror and wonder. The film’s subversion of classic fairy tale tropes serves as an overt critique of the patriarchal sexual mores in Charles Perrault’s classic version of Little Red Riding Hood. Many discussions of the film have highlighted the way the nonlinear narrative, the depictions of male sexual threat, the use of colors and imagery to explore the idea of innocence and loss, and the ending that allows Rosaleen to rescue herself, make the film a feminist narrative about the power of claiming and defining one’s own sexual and romantic destiny. Less discussed, though, is how the film’s focus on the dual constraints of time and flesh, as well as its play with the idea of embracing the shadow self, also make the film an exploration of what it means to claim one’s own soul.
A spider.
The film opens on a shot of an old well. This well figures prominently in several scenes, serving as the center of the village in Rosaleen’s dream as well as the opening to the “other world” in one of Dream Rosaleen’s stories. Composed of a circular opening and a large stone pillar, the well’s blend of phallic and yonic imagery is a strong hint at the film’s themes. Wells have long held spiritual significance, positioned in different mythic systems as sources of life, as representations of the womb, and as passageways between the material and the spiritual.

Similarly arcane images permeate the film. Toads lurk on logs and inside homes. Spiders fall from the rafters of a church and land in Rosaleen’s lap. Giant snakes curl around gnarled tree branches. A creature that resembles a mink hangs from the rafters in Granny’s house and rides on her shoulders like a living scarf. The forest teems with life, much of it out of place and alien. Thus, from the first scene, the film establishes the forest as a liminal space where the suppressed but potent forces of myth and magic peek out from every crevice.
Granny.
A dog runs around the well before racing through the woods on his way to the main house. He arrives at the house at the same time as Rosaleen’s parents, who have been out for the day. Her teenage sister, Alice, dressed in what vaguely resembles a white Communion dress and red shoes, greets her parents in the yard. After complaining to her parents about their argument, Alice climbs the stairs to Rosaleen’s room and pounds on the door to bring her out of hiding. Inside, however, we see that Rosaleen is asleep. Her room is full of the items that will eventually come alive either literally or symbolically in her dream world; porcelain dolls, a toy car, and stuffed animals line the shelves, and a white dress very like her older sister’s hangs on the back of the door. Rosaleen, wearing her sister’s lipstick, tosses and turns in her sleep. A copy of one of the monthly romance digests that My Weekly used to publish in the 70s and 80s, “The Shattered Dream”, lies beside her on the bed. As her sister hisses through the door, Rosaleen dreams that the forest outside her home has become tangled, dense, and misty.
Sarah and the bear.
Her sister runs through this landscape, pursued by a pack of wolves, while enlarged versions of the toys in her room stand by and watch. Unable to escape or fight, her sister is killed. The camera cuts to Rosaleen, still asleep, smiling at her sister’s death.

This is the first hint that, in this tale, the fair maiden is less a damsel-in-distress than a predator-in-waiting. Indeed, Dream Rosaleen frequently has contrary responses to the terrors, both real and imagined, that surround her. For example, as she attends her sister’s funeral the next day, she is more bewildered by the death than saddened; she never cries over the coffin, and when her grandmother pities her sister for having no one to save her, Rosaleen’s only response is to wonder why she couldn’t simply save herself.
No one to save her.
Over the course of the film, Rosaleen pushes back more and more at the restrictions of her life, the narrowness of the path she is asked to walk. Her behavior shows that part of Rosaleen’s journey is coming to terms with her own inner wildness, her shadow. According to Carl Jung, the shadow is a combination of the personal, often animalistic drives that are suppressed under the conscious ego. The shadow presents:
“a moral problem that challenges the whole ego-personality, for no one can become conscious of the shadow without considerable moral effort. To become conscious of it involves recognizing the dark aspects of the personality as present and real. This act is the essential condition for any kind of self-knowledge, and it therefore, as a rule, meets with considerable resistance.”
– Terence Hoyt
Rosaleen’s journey is thus a moral one, and the questions of moral choice and emotional truth loom large over the film.

After her sister’s funeral, Rosaleen spends the night at Granny’s house. While spinning red thread for a cloak, Granny tells her a story. From this point, the narrative of the film is split between the sleeping Rosaleen, the journey of Dream Rosaleen, and the stories and vignettes that interrupt the main narrative of the dream. These worlds are not divided but entwined, each informing the others and becoming increasingly inseparable as the plot advances. Granny’s first story is one of caution. She speaks of a woman who married “a traveller” who turned out to be a werewolf. After transforming into a wolf, he abandons his new bride, who eventually remarries and has children. The werewolf returns years later and, upon discovering his wife’s betrayal, transforms into a wolf in one of the most explicit and grotesque werewolf transformations ever put on screen. The woman’s new husband comes home and beheads the wolf. Granny’s words to Rosaleen, that “a wolf may be more than he seems,” and “the worst kind of wolves are hairy on the inside (and) when they bite you, they drag you straight to hell,” send the clear message that men are dangerous. However, in the context of the story, they also imply that a woman’s choices are fraught with potential for damnation.
He looks just the same as the day I married him.
Granny’s role as wise and cautious adviser is in keeping with one of the classic goals of fairytales, to instruct children in appropriate moral and social behavior. In this case, Granny also represents the figurative end of the path of womanhood. Rosaleen and Granny have a strong bond in part because of the power and limitations of time. Each of them treads on one side of the role representing the “peak” of conventional womanhood, that of mother. Granny, having passed through this phase and into the stage of crone, offers advice to guide Rosaleen along a similarly safe and well-worn path. Rosaleen, the maiden, struggles with the expectations of a conventional life and the pull of something more wild, free, and self-determined. After Granny’s first tale, Rosaleen asks if real wolves “beat the bitches” the way the human husband beats his wife for her transgression. Rosaleen is less frightened by the violence of the wolf than by the brutality of the man. And indeed, the woman in the story herself seems unhappy with her brutal human husband and the drudgery of her life. After her werewolf husband has died, the woman looks at his head, floating in a pail of milk, and wistfully proclaims that he “looks just the same as the day I married him.” Her fear is gone, leaving longing in its wake. Later that night, as Granny sleeps, Rosaleen lays awake and stares out the window, listening to music drifting in from the forest. The image is a call back to the way the werewolf in Granny’s story stood at the door on his wedding night, pulled away from his new life by the power of the full moon and the confines of his being.
"I brought you a present." "What kind of present?"
The temptation of the shadow self is further displayed in Rosaleen’s relationship with her mother and her experiences playing at romance with a village boy. She hears her mother and father making love and tosses in bed, excited and confused by the sound. In the morning, she asks her mother if her father hurts her when they’re in bed and mentions her Granny’s advice about men. The mother scoffs, telling her not to listen to Granny because she doesn’t know everything and “if there's a beast in men, it meets its match in women, too.” From here, Rosaleen begins to have more intimate experiences with her own “inner beast.” When she goes for a walk with a village boy in the woods, he kisses her. Rosaleen, seemingly aware of her sexual power for the first time, tells him he must catch her to kiss her again. She wanders away from him and climbs a tree as he calls for her. In one of the more surreal segments of the film, she finds a stork and nest at the top of the tree. The stork flies away, leaving behind a pot of lipstick, a mirror, and small blue eggs. She picks up the mirror and spreads the lipstick on her lips. Almost immediately, the eggs begin to crack. Inside each one is a tiny porcelain baby, each of them wet with what appear to be tears.
What the stork brings.
This scene with the eggs has been interpreted as a symbol of both Rosaleen’s impending womanhood, her capacity to bear children, and her similar capacity to “give birth” to her adult self. However, for me this scene is most poignant because it symbolizes that Rosaleen has crossed a threshold. The kiss is her entry into “womanhood” with its attendant joys and pains. While puberty is a difficult time for all children, the experience of becoming a woman is uniquely fraught because of the nearly inescapable violence that often plagues women’s lives. There’s a freedom to childhood that is forever destroyed by the responsibilities, emotional and physical changes, and actual bloodletting that mark this transition. In this sense, the werewolf is the ideal metaphor for female maturation; like a woman, the werewolf is controlled by the moon, surrounded by blood and the rituals of bloodletting, and defined by the limitations of flesh. So, too, is Rosaleen defined and confined by her changing body.
And the wolf, too, stains her lips red.
Mere moments after her first kiss, she stains her lips with red, symbolizing the end of innocence. She has only a moment to appreciate her newfound sexuality before the consequence of being “too free” with that sexuality - a baby - presents itself. A similar reminder of the confines of the flesh and the power of time occurs in Granny’s story about the boy and the devil. The vines trap the boy in the forest, sentencing him to life as a werewolf. He cannot escape his fate any more than Rosaleen can avoid making the moral and practical choices that will define her adulthood. These choices seem, initially, to be binary: follow the path that has been laid out for her by Granny, or be doomed like her sister, like the wolves, and like all creatures that stray from a prescribed and righteous path.
The wolves of the forest are more decent.
Rosaleen, however, is able to create a third path. In the stories she tells, and the way she handles the Huntsman/werewolf in the film’s final act, she finds a way to “give birth” to a self that is wholly different from that modeled for her. In response to her Granny’s stories and her mother’s less metaphorical advice, Rosaleen tells a story of how “wolves may not be what they seem.” She speaks of a woman who, after being impregnated and jilted by the lord of the manor house, decides to get revenge. She attends his wedding reception, at which all the guests are dressed in 18th century finery, with powdered wigs and powdered faces. Confronting her lover, the woman tells him that the “wolves of the forest are more decent” than he before turning all of the nobles into wolves. Crucially, she spares the servants; her quest for vengeance is very specifically targeted at those who represent unnatural and indifferent civilization. The woman then compels the wolves to sing for her and her child at night. When her mother asks where the pleasure is in listening to wolves, Rosaleen replies, “the pleasure would come from knowing the power she would have.” This woman, as close to a witch as any figure in the film, captures the seemingly eternal allure of the occult for young women. What could be a more enticing image for girls treading the boundaries of adulthood than a woman whose power comes entirely from her own will?
I may have found my way after all.
The final act of the film concerns the classic meeting between Little Red Riding Hood and the werewolf. On her way to Granny’s house, Rosaleen, wearing the red cloak, strays from the path and meets a huntsman. The two stop to eat and the huntsman flirts with her in a way that is both menacing and enticing. At one point, when the huntsman asks Rosaleen if she’s sorry that he found her in the wood, she says she’s not sorry because “they’re clowns, the village boys.” Rosaleen is attracted to his fine garments and manners, as well as his mystery. This is in keeping with the classic LRRH tale, where Red is seduced by the wolf while on her way to Granny’s house. Also in keeping with this tale, the huntsman arrives at Granny’s, reveals himself to be a wolf in disguise, and kills Granny. When she dies, her head hits the wall and shatters like a porcelain doll. Whether a sign that Granny’s values have been empty and fragile all along or simply a reminder that we are still dealing with the logic of dreams, this event highlights the fact that the Dream Rosaleen and the sleeping Rosaleen are connected and that the dream may have some real consequences for the dreamer.
Granny's head.
When Rosaleen arrives at Granny’s house, the traditional confrontation begins. The huntsman advances on Rosaleen, removing her red cloak and convincing her to throw it into the fire. At this point, a pack of wolves begins to howl. Rosaleen goes to the window and expresses pity for the wolves, shut outside in the freezing cold. When the huntsman asks if she feels sorry for them, she rounds on him, his gun in her hands. He lunges at her and she fires. During a momentary standstill, Rosaleen asks him if he’s “our kind or their kind.” He tells her he’s both, that he comes and goes between both worlds, and that his home is nowhere. He then kisses her and Rosaleen shoots him, which speeds his transformation into a wolf. It is here that the story truly breaks with convention; instead of killing the wolf, Rosaleen embraces him, claiming she “never knew a wolf could cry.” She then tells him a story of a she-wolf who came “from the world below to the world above.” Though the wolf means no harm, she it shot and must transform into a human to seek refuge in a church. The girl heals, says Rosaleen, “for she was just a girl, after all, who’d strayed from a path in the forest, and remembered what she’d found there.“ The girl returns to the well in the village and creeps inside, returning to the world below, illustrating that she, like the huntsman, lives “nowhere”, but inhabits both worlds at once.
I never knew a wolf could cry.
This story and her reaction to the wolf show that Rosaleen has chosen her path and, in so doing, accepted her shadow self. Instead of destroying the wolf, Rosaleen embraces him with love. Her recognition that the wolf cannot be but what he is – that he is trapped in his flesh and acts out of the constraints of his own nature – marks her moral choices as rooted in a sense of compassion and appreciation for the dark and frightening aspects of human nature. Understanding the wolf allows her to understand the “beast” within and to successfully transition into her adult self. We see the effects of this choice immediately. While searching for her in the forest, Rosaleen’s parents and other village members end up at Granny’s house and see a wolf jump through the window. They open the door and find a wolf wearing Rosaleen’s crucifix. Knowing the wolf to be her daughter, Rosaleen’s mother stops the men from shooting the wolves so they can escape. As the film comes to an end, the pack of wolves runs out of the fairy tale world and into the sleeping Rosaleen’s home. She is woken by the sound of the wolves descending on her door. In the final shot, Rosaleen screams as a wolf breaks through the window and into her room.
Breaking into the real.
This strange and abrupt ending can be interpreted in a variety of ways. But through the lens of Jung’s idea of the shadow, this final scene seems to imply that Dream Rosaleen’s choice, to embrace her wildness and ‘run with the wolves,’ is frightening to the real Rosaleen. And indeed, choosing the “wild” path of self-determination is frightening. True self-knowledge is often met with resistance, both from the self and from the outer world. Scholars such as Marina Warner (1994) have claimed that Angela Carter courted controversy in feminist circles due to her works’ frequent exploration of women’s attraction to the Beast in the very midst of repulsion. In this film, Rosaleen’s attraction to the Beast within herself, in the very midst of repulsion at what that attraction signifies about her, illuminates one of the film’s core messages. As Margaret Atwood has pointed out, “she who loses her shadow loses her soul.” In choosing her shadow, Rosaleen chooses her soul. And in a world where that choice, for women, is one that is fraught with the potential for damnation, horror is the natural result.
Blood red.
As the film closes, Rosaleen’s final words can only be read as fully illustrating her identification with the wolf. Treading in the world of this fairy tale is dangerous, not because of the sexual menace of man, but because of the sharp tooth of woman.
Little girls, this seems to say
Never stop upon your way
Never trust a stranger friend
No one knows how it will end
As you're pretty, so be wise
Wolves may lurk in every guise
Now as then, 'tis simple truth
Sweetest tongue has sharpest tooth.

Citations

Atwood, Margaret. 1994. “Spotty-Handed Villainesses: Problems Of Female Bad Behaviour In The Creation Of Literature”, Gifts of Speech.

Carter, Angela. 1987. Fireworks: Nine Profane Pieces. Penguin Books.

Hoyt, Terence. Practicalphilosophy.net. “Carl Jung on the Shadow”.

Warner, Marina. 1994. From the Beast to the Blonde: Fairy Tales and Their Tellers. Vintage, London.

1 comment:

  1. Very enjoyable analysis of a favourite film by a favourite writer.

    ReplyDelete

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