I have no accurate memory of when I first watched The Company of Wolves, Neil Jordan’s astonishing adaptation of Angela Carter’s short story. It might have been at university in Stirling, where I was a film student, though it might just as easily have been a screening at Bradford’s National Media Museum. Perhaps it wasn’t even at the cinema at all, but rather in somebody’s front room, seen through an analogue fug. Does it actually matter? What is important is that The Company of Wolves seared itself into my imagination at a time when I had about given up on British cinema ever managing that again.
The film may well have been mis-sold to American audiences as horror – there are enough visceral moments for its US distributors Cannon Films to have managed to cobble together a suitably trashy trailer – but its surrealistic impulses share more in common with Derek Jarman and Peter Greenaway than with John Carpenter. What I remember feeling most of all was an intoxicating rush, a sharp awareness of cinema’s possibilities – Jordan was obviously channelling the visionary genius of Michael Powell, whose idiosyncratic film collaborations with emigre screenwriter Emeric Pressburger were staples of the BBC2 schedules during my childhood.
What I failed to grasp at the time of watching Jordan’s film, however, was how Carter’s conscious subversion of cinema’s sexual psychology in her fiction was now being smuggled back via the film’s chimeric mise en scene. ‘She (was) a deeply ironic, deeply wicked, deeply political, deeply politicised, neo-Freudian, neo-feminist woman,’ Jordan says of Carter. The director and writer worked closely together on the script for The Company of Wolves, though it was he who suggested the unifying framework of nested stories – cheerfully plundered from obscuro Polish Gothic fantasy The Sargasso Manuscript – which gives the film its fractured, dreamlike quality. The Company of Wolves and Don’t Look Now, Nicolas Roeg’s magnificent, similarly oblique tale of the supernatural, are cinematic fellow-travellers.
In interviews, Jordan has downplayed his debt to Hammer horror, talking up instead the influence of German film expressionism, the charming, faintly unsettling shadow puppet animations of Lotte Reiniger, and the British watercolourist Samuel Palmer, whose eerie moonlit landscapes are the skull beneath the skin of The Company of Wolves.
Never acknowledged, however, is Carter’s amour fou with Cocteau’s surrealist fable as Freudian post-war allegory, La Belle et la Bete, an obsession which runs amok through the stories contained in The Bloody Chamber. It is there in the film’s plain-speaking heroine, Rosaleen – the sort of unfazed, occasionally scornful, girl that is nobody’s fool. It can be discerned too in the ersatz textures of the studio bound sets, the fecund otherness of the natural world, the preponderance of mirrors; even that ‘Open Sesame’ of childhood… ‘Once upon a time,’ is co-opted for the film’s own vaguely sinister purposes.
An oft repeated phrase in The Company of Wolves is ‘seeing is believing.’ Jordan and Carter wanted the reality of the film to be as surreal, as strange and deeply illogical as possible. Carter was fascinated by the ‘seemingly calm surface of fairy tales (that) concealed seething emotions looking for expression,’ says Jordan – something that Cocteau’s film delivers in spades.
For his part, Jordan had been watching William Wyler’s unhappy version of The Collector, with a view to filming it himself. He was struck by the idea that you are ‘not quite sure if it’s innocence or total depravity you’re looking at’ which insinuated itself into his work with Carter. (I could disappear up my own backside joining the dots between The Collector – with its creepy star turn from Terence Stamp – The Company of Wolves – in which Stamp pops up as a rather sardonic Devil – and my own occasional posts on Fowles, whose first book The Collector was. Oh, I just have.)
The closing words of The Company of Wolves are by the 17th century writer, Charles Perrault (Carter had translated his grimly moralistic fairy tales when she was resident in Bath in the seventies): ‘As you’re pretty, so be wise. Wolves may lurk in every guise. Now, as then, ‘tis simple truth: sweetest tongue has sharpest tooth.’ Spoken over a slow-motion canvas of a wolf breaking through a bedroom window, shards of glass, a ceramic cat, a creepy Pierrot figure and bits of doll’s house furniture crash to the carpet floor – splinters of a childhood rendered unto Freud. Curiously it is a moment echoed in the climactic scene of La Belle et la Bete where Avenant plummets from the glass ceiling in Diana’s Pavillion. It was Beauty killed poor Beast, you see.
A candlelit screening of La Belle et la Bete takes place at Left Bank Cinema, Leeds at 7.30 p.m. on Thursday 23rd February 2017. For more information including tickets, click here.