Saturday, March 04, 2006

Jesus, what teeth you have!

The language of cinema is uniquely suited to the logic of dreams. So it is exciting whenever a filmmaker achieves a state that echoes our dream lives. Neil Jordan did just that The Company of Wolves, which does not so much revise as flesh out the Little Red Riding Hood tale with the dizzying intensity of a fever dream.

Rather than relating the Brothers Grimm story in a straightforward manner, Jordan and co-screenwriter Angela Carter (upon whose story the film is based) utilize a complex structure of dreams, hallucinations, and stories told to our young Riding Hood surrogate Rosaleen (Sarah Patterson) by her grandmother (Angela Lansbury). Rosaleen's older sister has been killed by wolves in the opening sequence; right off the bat, Jordan cuts between dreams and waking life, blurring the line between the two. The film is in many ways a kindred spirit to A Nightmare on Elm Street (released the same year); both films conjure perverse, sexualized boogeymen as a manifestation of their protagonists' confused adolescent fears and desires. But if Nightmare is a straightforward horror story - Freddy Kreuger is the rebellious force that must be overcome with repression - than The Company of Wolves is much thornier.

Early on, Granny tells a story about two young newlyweds whose marriage is cut short when the lupine groom (Jordan favorite Stephen Rea) must answer "the call of nature." The bride (Kathryn Pogson) remarries, and her husband eventually returns, monstrous and enraged that she has not been faithful. Here, the monster represents not rebellion but repression; while the werewolf emerges from carnal rage, the triggering incident is his wife's violation of a social contract. A later scene, where an aristocratic dinner party turns into a beastly orgy, hints at the hypocrisy of the upper class which manifests itself in a grotesque manner.

But then, I'm making this sound like a thesis paper, when it's actually a great deal of fun. Jordan is dealing with the meaning beyond the archetypes of our fairy tales and nightmares, yet rather than succombing to literal-minded theorizing, he drives these ideas home with the potency of his images. I particularly loved the haunting motif of blood staining white - a bucket of milk, a flower - that comes into focus when a "purer" character is killed and does not bleed. It can be read as violence (the sheer panic we experience when wounded) or as sex (menstruation, a torn hymen). Either way, Jordan understands that images can communicate worlds more than words can hope - language exists to categorize and encapsulate, while images are much more direct and undiluted. The Company of Wolves exists in a time that resembles the nineteenth century but never really existed; it is assembled from our collective memories of youth and crystallized by the pain of puberty.

In the end, the film departs from the conventions of the horror and fairy tale genres significantly; the malevolent force (the werewolf) is neither triumphant nor defeated. A movie about the stories we scare ourselves with, The Company of Wolves addresses the unavoidable and important truth that we create our own demons. I've often woken after a particuarly incomprehensible or fantastic nightmare and been startled by the realization that the monsters I encountered were my own creation. We fear that which is within us the most; Jordan's film reaches the conclusion that the werewolf (stand in for all that is unruly, horny, and anarchic) exists in us all. A priest, upon encountering a young werewolf, wonders whether she came from God or the Devil before concluding it makes no difference: "After all, you're just a girl." Ah, but in The Company of Wolves, we are shown that there is no such thing.

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