Once upon a time there was a little girl with a red cloak. Everyone knows the story from there; how the little girl wandered off the forest path and met a wolf. Thanks to Disney, modern audiences have grown to see fairy tales as optimistic happy-ever-after stories of princesses and thieves. But not everyone is aware that the originals were far from this. In the traditional tale the wolf didn’t eat Red but rather raped her, turning a well-loved classic into a cautionary tale for little girls about bad men.
The Company of Wolves, directed by Irish filmmaker and author Neil Jordan, remakes this classic story into a fairy-tale-meets-B-movie-horror film that has just as much bite as its bark when it comes to updating the original power dynamics for a contemporary audience. In no small part because it was co-written and based off of the short story by Angela Carter, the infamous novelist known for her magical realist tales and fiercely feminist streak.
The film begins with a wolfish dog running through the woods, and up to a slowly-crumbling mansion. A young girl winds through the passages within and hammers on her sister’s door spitefully. Inside is Rosaleen, our heroine, reflected first in the bedside mirror and then revealed splayed on the bed, asleep, lips red as she tosses and turns. In her head, the sister runs through a shadowed forest and is devoured by wolves, as Rosaleen smiles to herself.
In traditional Carter style, wolves seem interchangeable with something else; in this case, men. The kind that the traditional fairy tales exposed, where the lines between beastly desires and manly pride blurred. Rosaleen’s granny explains that ‘men often grow into wolves as they grow older’, and the horror element blended with magical realism begs the question of if it’s metaphorical or literal.
But this film isn’t about beastly men, but the women who face them. If you’re familiar with Angela Carter, you’ll know how ferociously feminist she is, and she doesn’t back down from the way the patriarchy poisons women themselves against each other. The relationship between Rosaleen and her sister is enough to identify the fraught tensions between girls who have been raised to fear other women’s beauty–and by extension, desirability. This may not be Snow White, but a pretty young girl is still dangerous.
So,what is femininity in this fairy tale turned horror film? Visually, it’s all red lips and curly locks of hair. Rosaleen steals her sister’s lipstick in the real world and then finds it again while dreaming in a bird’s nest. Alongside the feathers and a mirror are speckled blue eggs that crack to reveal strange little human fetuses.Academically, many regard this as a metaphorical loss of innocence, and Rosaleen wears the lipstick for the rest of the film as she leans further and further on the side of seduction. It becomes unnervingly similar to the blood on the wolves’ jaws.
A lot of what Jordan draws attention to is the assumption that Rosaleen’s femininity, most easily identified through beauty at first, must be directed by a man. She has an interest in the forest, but it’s only when a village boy asks her to take a walk with him that she is allowed to go. In so much of film, and fiction in general,we see female characters driven towards passivity because of the motivations of someone else (usually a male character). Carter and Jordan are well aware of this, and let Rosaleen walk that path for a while, before she uses her own agency to wander off the beaten track.
‘Why couldn’t she save herself?’asks Rosaleen of a heroine in one of granny’s stories, only to be dismissed. Rosaleen rejects the shallow idea of femininity as needing to be in conjunction with men; she walks off into the forest by herself.‘I’ll protect ya,’the boy promises. ‘No,’she smiles, waving a knife far bigger than his. ‘I’ve got this to protect me’. Maybe her classic red cloak is her symbol of femininity but turned into a useful tool on her own adventures. No boyfriend jackets needed here.
The ‘final girl’ in the horror genre is generally described as ‘the only one left to tell the story’. Considering The Company of Wolves, telling stories is strongly associated with women communicating with other women. The grandmother practically raises Rosaleen on them at the start of the film, and the moment she grows up and tells her mother her own fairy tale is the second we start hearing about heroines who, rather than be victims, become revengers, inflicting attacks twofold on their oppressors. It’s the moment the village’s limitations on femininity is smashed to pieces.
If Rosaleen is the final girl of her dream world then the stories she survives to tell are anything but delicately feminine. She rewrites the fairy tale back in the direction of the dark original; what was once ‘red as a berry’ is now ‘red as blood’.And when she meets the stranger in the woods, she’s not so easily convinced by his friendliness. For something so beastly he cleans up pretty well, as he appears in grand renaissance clothing, brocade and shining buttons abound. But ‘the worst wolves are hairy on the inside’, and it’s the fear of what she can’t see working against her that concerns Rosaleen the most.
And at granny’s house, Rosaleen isn’t fooled for a second at who waits for her inside. It only takes her spotting hair burning in the fireplace to realise what he’s done with her grandmother. But she isn’t afraid, instead playing his game of conversation until she can grab his shotgun. Jordan dives into his source material for this climax, echoing Carter’s prose in the dialogue:‘since her fear did her no good, she ceased to be afraid’ becomes Rosaleen defiantly declaring to her adversary that it ‘wouldn’t do me much good to be afraid, would it?’
The threat here isn’t to be eaten by the wolf, not literally anyway. He doesn’t go straight to gobble her up but removes her cloak,and they watch it burn in the fireplace before he unlaces her bodice and leans in close. ‘Jesus, what big teeth you have,’ she exclaims only once she’s let him kiss her. ‘All the better to eat you with’ might be the line we all know, but Rosaleen isn’t having any of it. She points the shotgun and fires. Enraged but not mortally wounded, he transforms, all glistening, convulsing skin, and in beautiful 80s style a wolf’s snout bursts from his jaws and he morphs into a wolf before her.
In Carter’s story she freely lays with the beast and sleeps through a snow blizzard in his paws. The film is perhaps less sexually graphic, and instead the wolf, once turned, is calmed by the now-victor and storyteller Rosaleen as she begins her final tale. This time, of a she-wolf from the depths of the earth who ventures into a village and returns home having faced the people that fear her.
The horror of the werewolf and his miraculous transformation is the most visually provocative, but there’s something else hiding in there that Rosaleen’s final story hints at. As a dreamer experiencing this liminal world, she herself has come from a reality that is arguably deep and dark, where the wolves that attack little girls are indeed predators in the disguise of men. But now, just as the heroine of her story, she has faced them, and is ready to return home, all the more powerful.
What the village fears is, to put it simply, Rosaleen’s femininity being both desirable and thoughtful, but also seductive and determined. They fear wolves for hiding their ‘hairiness’ and evil, and what other stereotype do we know more than the femme fatale? Beautiful, clever, and ultimately manipulative. Usually for sex, in those stories. What’s more unnerving than a woman choosing to find her own sexual pleasure to a patriarchal society? In a critical way, a woman choosing her sexuality –choosing to be lustful, choosing to be a predator and not prey –is a horror story to them.
And, to complete the cycle, Rosaleen herself transforms into a she-wolf. Earlier in the film, her mother tells her that ‘if there is a beast in men, he meets his match in women too’. And so Rosaleen becomes the beast that is so feared by the village, but on her own terms. She is now the predator, and one that breaks the boundaries of the dream world and infiltrates the real one, bursting through the window of Rosaleen’s room and leading in a haunting narration over the credits.
The line that stays with me the most is that which Rosaleen tells her mother; that her heroine’s pleasure ‘would come from knowing the power she had’. This closing narration may seem like a warning to little girls who stray from the path not to trust strangers, like Red in the original tale. But it warns ‘as you’re pretty, so be wise’. Perhaps the ‘sweetest tongue’ might be a little girl too, and the ‘sharpest tooth’ her secret weapon.
by Daisy Leigh-Phippard
Daisy is studying film production at Arts University Bournemouth with the aspiration of becoming a director and screenwriter. If you can’t find her lost between the shelves of a bookshop you might be able to see her in a dark cinema if you squint hard enough. A lover of independent and foreign film with female perspectives, her favourites include Pan’s Labyrinth, The Handmaiden, Frida and anything that has ever come out of Hayao Miyazaki’s brain. You can see her work on thedaisydeer.wordpress.com, and find her general ramblings as @thedaisydeer at Twitter, Letterboxd and Instagram.
Categories: Feminist Criticism