Once upon a time… No, there was once a time that I could spend whole hours of summer coolness in a daydream. For every child knows the secrets of shut-eye, the private going-ons of a world as beautiful as the one we have to leave to find it. Daylight could fall so languid, so quietly on my windowsill, but I would take no notice of it. No notice of anything at all. All except for my little inner world, with greens enough for every bud of leaf and flower. It was mine to keep, and only I will ever know the taste of those idyll delights. But whatever happens to our childhood fantasies. Where do they go? Have they all withered away in place of something new, something with thorns and pricks?
From reading Angela Carter’s The Company of Wolves – a surreal reimagining of Charles Perrault’s Little Red Riding Hood – I have some reason to suggest that eroticism takes precedent when we come of age. We do not necessarily lose any depth of our imagination as we grow older. It merely takes on a whole other shape entirely, replacing fairy tales with the enchantments of touch, much like a memory contains more meaning for us than its own actual reality. After all, the allure of sex does not come from sex itself. The allure comes from fantasy alone. Suspect places. A trickle of taboo. All things that could color our cheeks with blush.
These tensions fill every frame of the film adaptation of The Company of Wolves. Like the source material, the movie begins something like this. Once upon a time, a young girl named Rosaleen (Sarah Patterson) fell asleep. In her dreams, Rosaleen was beautiful. The apple of every villager’s eye, but not all things were as sweet as apples then. Rosaleen’s older sister was killed by wolves for walking off the beaten path. But Rosaleen was a clever girl and knew what sorts of supernatural nightmares could lurk with teeth and claw in dreamland. She was on the cusp of womanhood, between an all-knowing and perfect innocence. The village boys understood it and Granny did too, which made it all the more important for her to tell Rosaleen many a cautionary tale about werewolves. For “now, as then, ‘Tis simple truth: sweetest tongue has sharpest tooth”.
I love storytelling with as much fervor as Sleeping Beauty has for a prince. Maybe I sound naïve in my faith in art, but even a kiss of a story can save us from a hundred years’ worth of dreams. And we can rediscover this magic all over again with The Company of Wolves because director Neil Jordan does not play by the same rules. I am tired of stories constrained by rules, bored by beginnings, middles, and ends. You won’t find that here. This film uses an entire dream to frame its story, interspersed with four individual narrative tales, each containing its own share of characters. Sometimes these stories begin at whim, others conclude without signal. And as much as it may sound like a labyrinth, I hope you can leave your ball of thread behind and trust me. Jordan has perfected dream logic.
Although it may not sound particularly innovative for a film to have ties with literary traditions, Carter demands that we examine these traditions more closely, so that we may defy them. Hold Perrault’s version up to a looking glass, and you may find something disturbing. A moral about sex for young women, perhaps. Look a little closer. Even the most gentle of all wolves can gobble women up. Press your nose up against the glass. Despite this tale’s best intentions, it also upholds the worst of them with its latent eroticism of a nymphet falling prey to animal appetites. In other words, Perrault suggests that our culture’s morbid fascination with “a little country girl” has become the norm, and all girls should act according to this deviancy.
Now take a step through the looking glass, where all patriarchal logic can be reversed. Welcome to Rosaleen’s inner world. A world blooming with suggestive yearnings, swollen whole with the ecstasy of the inchoate. Although Rosaleen may not know what to call these feelings just yet, this desire becomes all the more titillating without the constraint of preconception. Anything is possible for her in dreamland. In this world, you can find red lipstick and hand mirrors in nests of blue eggs. Vengeful witches on the prowl, and even Terence Stamp as the Devil in a Rolls-Royce. You see, sex cannot be merely defined as the salty writhings of arms and legs, lips and loins. Rosaleen creates an eroticism all her own. One that cannot be exploited with fear or sexual violence.
It reminds me of Dorothea Tanning, who once described her paintings as “a confrontation between the forces of grown-up logic and the bottomless psyche of a child”. But as much as Rosaleen loses herself in this gulf, she still finds herself pinned like the wings of a butterfly to the expectations of childhood and adulthood. And yet, she breaks free as a storyteller. With grace beyond her years, Patterson mesmerizes with as much ease as a nursery rhyme rolls off the tongue. Her performance has an openness, softened with the possibility for there to be so much more to life than grown-ups allow. All because of her faith in her stories, not Perrault’s.
I love this film with all my heart, that much is clear. These past few months, I have been feeling blue about art. Sometimes I feel as though that our lives are confined to outdated narrative traditions. And for better or worse, these patriarchal narratives inform our actions. Because we are no better than the stories we tell. But I would like to think that Carter and Jordan made it possible to revise narratives, to draw lines straight through all those ornate letters of a ‘happily ever after’ and say it isn’t so. It isn’t so. Follow my breadcrumbs and Rosaleen will show you. – Daniel Hrncir
The Company of Wolves is available on Digital HD and Blu-ray.
The film stars Sarah Patterson, Angela Lansbury, David Warner, and Micha Bergese.