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Posts Tagged ‘Neil Jordan’

A little bit less than a year ago I was approached at work by a former student of mine. It was obvious he had something on his mind and that there was a burning question he was dying to ask me. Although we no longer had a formal relationship of any kind, I am always honoured and happy to help out in this sort of situation, and mentally prepared myself for what would very likely be a perceptive and thoughtful question concerning rarefied details of linguistics, culture and social behaviour. As I suspected, he got straight to the point and asked me the question uppermost in his mind.

‘Why did Dr Strange give Thanos the Time Stone? It’s stupid, it didn’t make any sense.’

Well, we discussed the answer for some time, as you would, but even as we talked I found myself feeling a great sense of pride that my former student still had his priorities straight and that I had placed his feet so firmly on the path of virtue. And so it felt entirely appropriate that we went to the cinema together, this week of all weeks, to enjoy – well, actually, we went to see Neil Jordan’s Greta, as the other film you may be thinking of only opened at midnight and there’s no way I can stay up until 4am on a work night and still function the next day. So it goes.

Still, we had a pretty good time watching Greta, because Neil Jordan is never less than competent as a director – that said, you’re never quite sure what you’re going to get from him, as the description ‘eclectic’ barely begins to do justice to his filmography – he’s done fantasy films, thrillers of various stripes, and comedies. His last film, Byzantium, was about pole-dancing vampires, and I still regret not actually going to see it. Hey ho.

Greta is set in New York City and concerns Frances (Chloe Grace Moretz), a young woman working as a waitress in one of the metropolis’ swankier restaurants. She has recently lost her mother and has a somewhat fractious relationship with her pa, both of which are relevant to the plot, as is the fact she is sharing an apartment with her best friend (Maika Monroe). The best friend is brash and somewhat self-interested; Frances is kind and thoughtful. The wisdom of this as a lifestyle choice is thrown into doubt after Frances finds an expensive handbag on the metro one day and resolves to return it to the original owner. This turns out to be Greta (Isabelle Huppert), a pleasant but lonely lady of a certain age. Greta’s husband has passed away, her daughter is living abroad, and she doesn’t even have a dog any more. Frances’ sympathies are stirred, to say nothing of the fact she is missing a maternal influence in her life, and the two quickly become close.

And then, of course, because it’s fairly obvious from the start what kind of movie this is and how it’s all going to go, there is the big moment of revelation: while round at Greta’s house, Frances looks in the wrong cupboard and comes across a whole pile of handbags of the same kind she found, each one labelled with the name and phone number of the person who returned it to Greta. But where are these thoughtful people now? What exactly is Greta up to?

I think you would have to be pretty wet behind the ears yourself not to have some idea which way this movie goes, for it is apparent from quite close to the start that this is one of your old-fashioned obsession-themed psycho thrillers, not all that different from the likes of Fatal Attraction, Single White Female or The Resident. Greta doesn’t seem particularly interested in moving the genre on at all; its main innovations are that the traditional bit with a kitchen knife is reimagined to make use of a biscuit cutter, and that it is completely, ravenously, roaringly bonkers. Not particularly in the story, which is standard stuff as I have noted, but in the treatment of it. I was really anticipating something subtle and classy, given Jordan’s involvement, with a long build-up before the onset of the screaming ab-dabs, but the film has other ideas and is really, really keen to get to the proper psycho killer meat of the story. The ominous strings and twitchy smash-cuts are introduced rather abruptly, not to mention quite early on, which means the film has to go further and further out there to maintain its momentum as it continues. I have to say I found the results to be highly entertaining, but the film is preposterous rather than any kind of scary.

Which leads one, of course, to wonder exactly what an actress with the stellar reputation of Isabelle Huppert is doing in this kind of tosh. Huppert is in majestic form and carries off the whole movie effortlessly, bringing a lovely lightness of touch to her role as a frothing maniac: she barely needs to get out of first gear to dominate the film. But still, why is she in it at all? The only explanation is that she feels she needs to raise her Hollywood profile a bit so she can compete for good parts in American films; this is the reason why Nigel Hawthorne made an equally unlikely appearance in Demolition Man, after all. Then again, I suppose there may also be a financial component involved – Laurence Olivier, during that point at the end of his career when he routinely turned up in things like The Boys from Brazil, The Jazz Singer, Dracula, and Clash of the Titans, responded testily to questions as to why he did so many lousy movies with the reply that artistic merit wasn’t the only consideration. Anyway, Huppert is very far from the first class act to slum it in dodgy genre fare, and it’s not as if she’s alone here – Chloe Grace Moretz is also a feted performer (not so much for her recent work, admittedly), and she does good work here too. Also, just to make sure everyone is certain this is a Neil Jordan film, his regular collaborator Stephen Rea turns up in a small role; students of film history will understand what I mean when I say that Rea is in the Martin Balsam part.

As I say, I enjoyed the ridiculous extremity of Greta more than anything else, because there’s little substantially new about this film, and Jordan really only does a workmanlike job as the director – there’s an interesting sequence where the boundaries between reality and fantasy seem to start breaking down, but this doesn’t really go anywhere. But the movie is worth seeing even if it’s just for the sight of classy actors having fun; by that same token, of course, I have to say that if this film had been made with a less distinguished cast, it would almost certainly have gone straight to DVD.

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I must confess that my fondness for the Phoenix, my local art-house cinema, has taken the odd knock over the last few years, mainly because with each new refurbishment (there have been several) it seems to have become more and more bland and corporate and just a little bit less charming. Admittedly, the complete rebuild of the smaller theatre is a vast improvement, but then the big one has also been totally redone and it didn’t really need it. Hey ho; that’s progress, I guess. One reason to still love the place is its habit (on the verge of becoming a tradition) of digging out a classic fantasy or horror movie to inaugurate the start of every Christmas season. Last year it was the wonderfully nasty Blood on Satan’s Claw, and this year it was Neil Jordan’s 1984 film The Company of Wolves, based on a story by Angela Carter.

Looking at this film now inevitably takes one back to a lost age of the British film industry, a time when companies like ITC were cranking out movies like Hawk the Slayer and The Dark Crystal on a fairly regular basis, while the hip young gunslingers at Palace Pictures, who started out by distributing art house movies from abroad, were chancing their arm with projects like Mona Lisa and and Absolute Beginners. The Company of Wolves is an ITC-Palace production, of course.

This is one of those movies which it is rather difficult to give a capsule synopsis for, but let’s have a go anyway. The story opens in what appears to be the real world, with a well-off couple (David Warner and Tusse Silberg) returning home to their rather expansive country home and their two daughters. The elder (Georgia Slowe) is packed off to rouse the younger (Sarah Patterson) from her attic bedroom, but it quickly becomes apparent that there is tension between the sisters. The younger girl continues to sleep, and suddenly the atmosphere darkens, the vista beyond her window becoming that of a dark, fairytale world.

She dreams of her sister becoming lost in the woods, initially encountering giant sized, animated toys, and then – as the forest itself becomes more grotesque and fantastical – a pack of wolves, which pursue and set upon her (this is still a very creepy and effective sequence three decades later). But the dream continues, and makes up the rest of the movie, as she herself appears as a young girl named Rosaleen, along with her parents, and her grandmother (Angela Lansbury, back in the days when she was much less controversial).

What follows is a kind of adult fairytale, very loosely following the plot of Little Red Riding Hood, but with many discursions and embellishments along the way. Quite apart from the main plot (which concerns a wolf menacing the village, and also, not to put too fine a point on it, Rosaleen’s incipient sexual awakening), there are a number of shorter stories woven into the film, usually as tales told by either the grandmother or Rosaleen herself, most of them taking a lupine bent – for example, a young woman marries a ‘travelling man’ (Stephen Rea), who disappears on their wedding night while answering, ha ha, the call of nature (there is a full moon), while a village girl dishonoured by a local aristocrat turns up at his wedding party to exact a startling revenge on the degenerate nobility there. Most of these are not much more than vignettes – one of them, featuring an uncredited Terence Stamp as the Devil, materialising in a white Rolls Royce, is very short indeed – and all of them are rather impressionistic and allusive.

Then again, this is the sort of film where everything seems to allude to something else. There are layers of meaning heaped upon each other as the film goes on, and in a rather ostentatious way. This is not the sort of film where the allusions and symbolism contribute another layer of meaning to the story – this is the sort of film which makes virtually no sense unless you accept that it is intended as a kind of coded parable, to be interpreted as such. At one point Rosaleen, hiding in the forest from an amorous boy, climbs a tree to discover a stork’s nest full of eggs. The eggs all spontaneously hatch out into tiny homunculi. On the face of it this is just weird, but it is clearly a moment of deep importance.

So, to coin a phrase, what is The Company of Wolves really all about? Well, for all that it occasionally resembles a rather superior Hammer horror pastiche, made with 1980s production values, I don’t think I would call this an actual horror movie as such – though, as mentioned, there are plenty of unsettling sequences, gory moments, and bits you wouldn’t necessarily want to show your own granny. It is clearly framed as a combination of fairy story and folktale (hence this revival, as part of a season of films in that kind of vein), and as for its central theme…

Well, to begin with, the stories all have a cautionary bent – not quite Beware of the Dog, but certainly Beware of the Wolf – the wolf in question often having something to do with aggressive male sexuality (I have an essay on the topic of lycanthropy as a metaphor for toxic masculinity in a book coming out next year, but what do you know, The Company of Wolves was there decades ago). All men are beasts, especially ones whose eyebrows meet in the middle (and this film was made years before the Gallagher brothers became famous).  The thing is, though, that as the film progresses, it becomes quite clear that everyone’s a little bit lupine occasionally – it doesn’t shy away from accepting the existence of female desire, nor is it treated as something wrong or shameful.

I suspect that one of the reasons the film remains so oblique and obscure in its meaning is because the structure established at the beginning is never really resolved. Normally, when a film opens in the ‘normal world’ and then moves to a dream reality, the conclusion sees the main character waking up and putting the lessons they have learned from the dream into reality – the classic example being, of course, The Wizard of Oz. This does not happen here: the end of the film sees a pack of wolves breaking through the walls of the dream, into the bedroom where the ‘real’ Rosaleen is still sleeping, but then abruptly concludes on an unresolved note of menace. I was not surprised to hear a group of people a couple of rows behind me discussing the film and admitting that they had no idea what the frame story was supposed to mean.

Nevertheless, this is a handsomely mounted and atmospherically directed film, even if the fairy-tale forest is fairly obviously a soundstage somewhere in Shepperton. There is also an undeniable pleasure in seeing people who are undeniably proper star actors (Lansbury, Warner, Rea) rub shoulders with folk you’d more normally see on the telly – Brian Glover is in it (his second British-made werewolf movie of the decade), so is Graham Crowden, so is Jim Carter (uncredited). Sarah Patterson, on the other hand, is so good in what was her movie debut that it’s genuinely surprising she didn’t go on to have a much bigger career. For what was a fairly low-budget movie even in 1984, it looks rather good, although some of the special effects – I’m thinking here particularly of the flayed werewolf transformation – have not aged particularly well.

I have to say I didn’t enjoy seeing The Company of Wolves again quite as much as I did The Blood on Satan’s Claw last year, but that’s probably because the latter is a (no pun intended) full-blooded supernatural horror movie, while the former uses some of the trappings of the genre to explore its own areas of concern. While the results are thought-provoking, it’s also a film where the narrative is there to service the author’s ideas and message. As a result it’s a film which is clearly at least as interested in making you think as it is in entertaining you – not that there isn’t a lot here to entertain, anyway. If nothing else, it’s a reminder of a time when British films were not afraid to be properly ambitious, experimental and imaginative.

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