78 – The Company of Wolves:
We’ve come to yet another fairy tale movie, although not the kind you’d be expecting. I remember what I loved about Snow White & the Huntsman was how perfectly it captured the atmosphere of a Grimm fairy tale. The reason I love this movie is because it embraces the other side of fairy tale lore. The tales as they first became known were told in the same way as urban legends: cautionary tales advising children to behave. Red Riding Hood is probably the most famous cautionary fairy tale there is. It warns young girls about the dangers of straying from the beaten path, and to be wary of strange men. And of course to be afraid of your own sexuality. In the 1980s, fledgling Irish director Neil Jordan got the idea to adapt a short story by Angela Carter that explored werewolf folklore and how it overlapped with the Red Riding Hood tale. The result is a film that’s incredibly out there, but no less fascinating to watch.
The movie opens quite simply with a dog running through the English countryside – until he gets to a country house. Two parents have just arrived home to find their eldest daughter Alice complaining about their youngest Rosaleen. She’s upstairs in bed, nursing a tummy ache. Given that Alice hammers on her bedroom door screaming that she’s a pest, you can understand why the girl stays sound asleep. She starts to dream – and the majority of the film will take place inside her dream.
Neil Jordan said that having the movie happening inside a dream allowed for them to literally do whatever they wanted. It’s Rosaleen’s dream so her rules apply. And rule number one is to take care of that pesky sister of hers. The dream begins with Alice running through a forest, and being scared by various life-sized versions of Rosaline’s toys. The whole sequence is quite a surreal thing, but it helps let us know that we’re in for a bizarre Alice In Wonderland type journey. And I literally only just copped that the sister is called Alice, wearing a white dress in contrast to Rosaleen’s red, walking through a tunnel with oversized toys – and Rosaleen later sees a white rabbit in her dream. The sequence ends with Alice being chased by wolves. Surrounded by them, she collapses screaming. It’s not clear if we’re meant to assume she was eaten by the wolves or she just died of fright at the sight of them.
Either way, we see Rosaleen smirking in her sleep as this happens. With Alice now out of the way, our setting is properly established. Rosaleen dreams that she and her family are peasants living in an 18th century forest village. There’s a funeral for Alice – who looks very good for someone who was just killed by a pack of wolves. I should now probably talk about our lead actress, Sarah Patterson, who plays Rosaleen. She went to the auditions for the film to support a friend, never intending to audition herself. But Neil Jordan spotted her and screen tested her for the part. She did one more film and then a pair of indie films over a decade later, and that’s about it. They’d originally planned to cast a teenaged actress to play the 12-year-old protagonist but Patterson was exactly what they wanted. So the symbolism in this story really benefits from having an actual 12-year-old in there.
Rosaleen spends the evening with her grandmother, played by Angela Lansbury. If you were paying attention during the framing device, there are several shots of a doll in Rosaleen’s real room that resembles Granny. As most elderly women in rural areas are, she’s full of homespun wisdom. She tells Rosaleen all sorts of tips for surviving the cruel world. The most notable of these are to never stray from the path and never trust a man whose eyebrows meet. She elaborates this one with a story. And at this point this movie’s narrative structure gets a little confusing for some viewers. Granny’s story plays out for the viewer to see, and we’re already inside a dream. In literature, this is what’s called a ‘Chinese Box Structure’.
As seen in the picture, a Chinese box is a set of boxes fitting inside each other – in the same way as those Russian dolls we’re all familiar with. So in media, a Chinese Box Structure is several stories contained within each other. There’s a story within a story. The whole film here is framed by Rosaleen dreaming in her bed. And within the dream’s plot, there are four segments where characters tell a story. The stories take us to a third level in the narrative, and two of those are from Granny’s perspective. So Rosaleen is dreaming about being told stories from Granny, or else telling them herself. And if that still doesn’t bring you up to speed, I highly recommend the film’s FAQ page on IMDB. That explains pretty much everything in the film, and it’s where I got filled in on a lot of the symbolism.
Granny’s story tells of a village woman who married a travelling man. A man whose eyebrows met in the middle in fact. Although their wedding night started off well, the man had to go outside for the “call of nature”. He never came back and the young bride heard wolves howling. The man was never seen again. The locals believed he ran away, while his wife believed him eaten by the wolves. She remarried and bore three children. But one night, her first husband returned! And was none too happy to discover three children that clearly didn’t get fathered by him.
As the story-within-the-dream takes place in a time before Friends and the movie Casablanca, husband number one feels his wife had no excuse. And so begins a rather horrific sequence of him tearing his skin off and transforming into a wolf. The scene starts out effectively enough…until he’s torn his skin off. The animatronics to show him turning into a wolf really aren’t that good. It’s impressive that they were able to do it, but Jordan probably should have just used camera tricks and implied horror a la Val Lewton in Cat People. The woman’s second husband arrived home to decapitate the wolf. He also smacked his wife for good measure, as apparently the whole thing was her fault.
Granny’s first story here is meant to be a cautionary tale to Rosaleen, but it actually tells us far more about the old woman herself. Throughout the film, we’ll come to know Granny as a very narrow-minded and conservative lady. Her raison d’etre is to keep Rosaleen sheltered with old wives’ tales and superstitious nonsense. She means for the first story to show Rosaleen about how all men are really beasts. Although it was the first husband who was the wolf, the second still beat the woman anyway. Granny believes that wolf and man are no different, and all are destined to treat women badly. As this is Rosaleen’s dream, it could represent her own fear at the idea of having relationships in the near future. After all, what does a 12-year-old know about love or marriage?
Granny’s anti-male attitude is further demonstrated the next day when she kicks a village boy for flirting with her granddaughter. Once Granny’s gone however, Rosaleen happily plays with the boy. Her curiosity further gets spiked when she catches her parents getting very snuggly in bed. You can tell she’s wondering if men are as beastly as Granny has just told her, then why do her parents seem happy together? She asks her mother about this, and mother responds that Granny may know some things but she doesn’t know everything.
“If there’s a beast in man, then it meets its match in woman too.”
The boy from the village gives Rosaleen a bouquet of flowers and asks her to go for a walk with him in the woods. Perhaps not coincidentally it’s now time for Granny’s second story. She talks of a preteen boy – illegitimately born of a priest, on Christmas day, feet first and with eyebrows that meet in the middle – who is destined to meet the devil one day in the middle of the woods. Now the devil gets a lot of different portrayals across the media – the favourite one being the red horned demon with a pitchfork. So how is the devil represented in this film?
It gets better. Andy Warhol was apparently who the part was written for. He actually agreed to it as well. But he had just been shot and he was a bit afraid of travelling as a result – so he would only do the film if they shot his scenes in New York. With this being several levels of unfeasible, Neil Jordon just cast his friend Terence Stamp. He went all out for it, buying Stamp a suit especially for the scene and even finding a real pygmy skull to use as a prop. Anyway the devil gave the boy a tonic to rub on his chest. Once he did, hair began to grow and vines sprung up from the ground to trap him. It’s after this story that Rosaleen briefly wakes up from her dream.
The Behind the Scenes dossier on the DVD hints that the devil is actually doing some form of twisted kindness for the boy. With him being an outcast from society, the devil gives him a potion that turns him into a wolf – and allows him to join a different society. A different interpretation suggests that the story is a metaphor for boys during puberty. We’re all familiar with the expression ‘it’ll put hairs on your chest’, and most preteen boys eagerly look forward to the day when they can start shaving and doing other ‘adult’ things. The boy in the story possibly wants to hurry up and become a man. But once it starts to actually happen, he’s suddenly terrified by what’s in store for him. The vines pinning him to the ground represent how he can’t escape puberty once it starts happening. There’s a third interpretation that relates back to Granny’s old opinions. This could be her way of explaining to Rosaleen how she believes that those born different from anyone should really be shunned – as they’re destined to have horrible fates anyway. If this is the right interpretation, the movie makes it clear that Granny is really talking out of her ass; the priest she claims is deaf drops an entire tree branch on her.
Rosaleen’s parents tease her about her upcoming ‘date’, also not-so-subtly telling the audience that she’s on the verge of becoming a woman. During mass the next day, Rosaleen and her friend make faces at each other – much to Granny’s disapproval. Rosaleen is also now wearing a red woollen shawl that Granny knitted for her.
As Rosaleen and the boy go for a walk, the boy initiates a kiss. Rosaleen runs off at first, but she soon kisses him back and starts teasing him. She runs off into the woods and climbs a tree to troll him even further. In a stork’s nest, she finds a mirror and some lipstick. There’s also a set of eggs, which hatch to reveal…
If you’re wondering about the significance of those things, Neil Jordan himself doesn’t seem to know. He put certain things into the film that were really just meant to be random and insignificant – as so many things in our dreams are. That hasn’t stopped some people from guessing though; a few people suggest that it’s a metaphor for the girl’s first period. Since the eggs have tiny babies in them – and Rosaleen and her mother share a smile when the former shows the latter – it could mark the first step towards Rosaleen becoming a woman. It does happen after her first kiss. Rosaleen is put off by the kiss at first, but soon takes control and starts to enjoy herself. The lipstick and the mirror are similar marks of child-to-adult rites of passage – and at the start we hear Alice complain that Rosaleen has been borrowing her lipstick.
The boy finds a cow slaughtered and realises it means there are wolves in the area. Rosaleen comes back into the village to find the men fighting over the possibility that she has been eaten by the wolves – and whose fault that may be. Her mother cools them off quite literally by throwing a bucket of water at them. It might be just my interpretation, but I think this scene is meant to call back to Granny’s teachings about how all men are beasts deep down. Rosaleen sees that there is a grain of truth to that with how the men fight like animals. But her mother is able to calm them down quite easily, which reinforces her lesson about how the beast in man is evenly matched by the one in woman.
While the village men go out to hunt the wolves, Rosaleen decides that she’ll tell a story. She tells her mother about where she thinks the wolves might have come from. The story takes us to a fancy wedding banquet among the aristocracy. The wedding was interrupted by a woman who had been done “a terrible wrong” – and her big pregnant belly doesn’t leave much doubt as to what that may have been. This woman must have been a witch of some sort, because she cursed the entire congregation to become wolves. She spared the servants and the musicians though. I have to say that the special effects to show the aristocrats transforming look a lot better than the ones in the first story. There are also some great shots of the transformations from the reflection of a broken mirror.
The witch had the wolves serenade her and her baby every night, revelling in the power she had over them now. My own personal interpretation of this story is that it’s Rosaleen making up her own mind after listening to Granny. Rosaleen starts to doubt the old wives’ tales Granny has been feeding her – especially the idea that men can easily dominate and become beasts. After seeing her mother stop a fight in the village, Rosaleen gets the idea that women can be just as vicious. Unlike the submissive wife in the first story, the witch gets revenge on those who have wronged her. So Rosaleen is starting to see that Granny’s stories might be nothing but nonsense. The men catch the wolf and shoot it dead. But when Rosaleen’s father comes back home, he says he cut the paw off as a trophy. And now…
Rosaleen is shown crying in her sleep at the point where the hand is thrown on the fire. Instead of relief that the threat to the village is gone, she appears to feel sympathy for the poor thing. But at least she’s able to visit Granny now. She sets out with a basket of gifts and a dagger to protect herself. She comes across a stranger who has lost his companions. He persuades her to take a siesta and have a picnic with him. Oh and his eyebrows meet in the middle.
The man flirts with her, and Rosaleen is more than able to match his moves. He makes a bet with her: if he gets to Granny’s house before her, she owes him a kiss. Rosaleen agrees and accepts his hat as a token. He does indeed get to the house first, and Granny is instantly suspicious that he’s done something to her granddaughter. She tries to fight him off but he takes a good swipe at her head – and takes it clean off! It smashes against the wall like porcelain.
Neil Jordan has said that this is another one of those things that are just surreal because it’s a dream. But as that’s no fun, let’s hear a few fan interpretations. The first is that it foreshadows Rosaleen’s dream world beginning to crumble around her. Granny is based off one of her dolls, and her turning back into one as she dies might be a nod that Rosaleen is about to wake up soon. Deeper interpretations say that Granny is actually a metaphor for the innocence and naivety of childhood – so a doll’s head being smashed represents Rosaleen’s childhood leaving her behind. Another good one is that it represents how Granny’s stories were all nonsense – since the head was so easily broken. And as it’s empty, it means that her stories had no substance to them.
Rosaleen eventually finds her way to Granny’s, where the man is waiting for her. When she sees that Granny is gone, she instantly guesses that the man is really a wolf. But she’s not afraid – “it wouldn’t do me much good to be afraid” – and allows him to take off her red shawl. She then throws it on the fire at his suggestion. If Granny is a metaphor for Rosaleen’s childhood innocence, then we can assume that throwing the shawl on the fire means Rosaleen is letting go of her childhood. By doing so, she is sort of revealing her body to this stranger. He reminds her of their bet and she gives him his kiss. He advances on her after that but she shoots him with his own gun – once again going back to the notion of the beast in man meeting its match in woman. The man of course starts to transform, and there’s a rather surreal shot of the wolf emerging from the human skin.
Rosaleen feels guilty for hurting the wolf, so she tells him a story to comfort him. Once upon a time, a she-wolf came from the world below to the world above. Although she meant no harm, someone in the village shot at her. The she-wolf found refuge in the church, where the priest tended to her. Once she was healed, she returned to the world below. This story is a parallel to Granny’s about the boy meeting the devil in the woods. The she-wolf represents a woman who has matured sexually, but for some reason tries to return to her childhood innocence. She doesn’t belong there however and has to return to the world below. This of course means that once we’ve matured, we can never go backwards. Once awakened to the world of adulthood, we can’t go back to being innocent children again. As a fact of life, this tale is more bittersweet in contrast to the straightforward horror of the other three.
The villagers have now tracked Rosaleen down to Granny’s house. But the wolf bursts out of the window. And when mother opens the door, she finds another wolf inside. As she’s wearing the cross Rosaleen wore, this means that the girl has become a wolf herself! The two of them re-join the pack and leave the village. Rosaleen transforming into a wolf is a major part of Angela Carter’s original short story, and the author wanted to write a revisionist version of Red Riding Hood. The familiar fairy tale warns against the dangers of sexuality, while this offers the opportunity to embrace it. Rosaleen turning into a wolf means that she has matured and left childhood behind her. Furthermore, the wolf set out to seduce Rosaleen. But she proved more than a match for him and ended up seducing him. And thus her becoming a wolf as well shows that women and men can become equals in terms of sexuality.
The wolves begin galloping back through where we saw Rosaleen’s dream starting. Her entire dream world seems to be collapsing around her. We then see wolves breaking into her bedroom and her toys falling to pieces. The DVD commentary says that it represents her childhood innocence being destroyed completely – emphasised by her toys falling over. And while she was accepting of her sexuality in the dream, she’s now terrified of it in real life. Just as any real girl would be.
So this is probably the most surreal film on my list. I mean, I don’t pretend to be an expert on complex themes and analyses at all. I watched the movie not really understanding exactly what was going on – and I had the FAQ I mentioned above to fill me in afterwards. But of course once I knew what it was about, I started to have lots of fun making up my own interpretations. I always love a film that can encourage you to come up with your possibilities and theorise what you think the story is really about. And there’s no better film for allowing that. It’s clearly not for everyone, as I showed my friends this years ago and they hated it. But as a lover of fairy tales and the like, this was the perfect film for me. The film managed to be a respectable success at the Box Office; making its budget back just barely within the opening weekend. It ultimately earned about $4 million worldwide, and earned a few award nominations. Neil Jordan of course went onto direct some notable hits like The Crying Game, Interview With The Vampire, Michael Collins and Breakfast On Pluto. He and the original author Angela Carter loved working together on this and had hoped to find another project to work on. But Carter’s health wasn’t the best and she passed away before they could. Jordan says that they had talked about doing an adaptation of The Lady of the House of Love – a short story about a human male whose purity stops a vampire female from feeding on him. Given the magic they worked with this film here, that probably would have been pretty awesome too.
If there’s a beast within film, it meets its match in the grades Bobby gives.
*Story? The story of this film is so unconventional and bizarre – and yet it just works so well. This is a very layered story that doesn’t feel the need to conform to a traditional three-act structure. Full of lots of nifty symbolism and metaphors, it makes perfect sense once you find the answers for yourself. A+
*Characters? They’re pretty underdeveloped but it’s possible that’s so you can interpret them how you like. Rosaleen’s journey is an interesting one at least. B-
*Performances? I’m definitely intrigued by Sarah Patterson’s performance. The girl was only twelve and you have to wonder if she even knew what kind of film she was making. But she has a definite presence about her and keeps me invested in Rosaleen’s story. Of the rest of the cast, only Angela Lansbury is a real stand-out. But they’re fine too. B-
*Visuals? A wonderfully surreal, dreamlike atmosphere – in the same vein as Suspiria. The look of the fairy tale forest is lovely to see, and the lighting in particular is a high point. Making the film happen inside a dream gave them free reign to play around with the usual conventions. A
*Special Effects? Erm…points for effort. Well no, the first effect of the wolf transforming does not look that great. It probably didn’t look good even when the film was released. Other effects are a bit better, especially blending shots of real wolves with Belgian Shepherds with their fur dyed. C+
*Anything Else? The fact that the film leaves so much open to your own interpretation is fun, but perhaps not wise. I have no problem doing the reading to find out more, but maybe this film is a little too sophisticated for its own good. B-
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