Shapeshifting as an Allegory for Sexual Desire in The Company of Wolves
In literary fiction, the shapeshifting trope is one of the more popular applications of fantasy to a large body of scenarios, ranging from horror to romance. As an act of fantasy, it also has strong cultural currency, as mythologies and folk tales emanating from China to South America have utilized shapeshifting for similar effects. As such a trope is largely fantastic and psychologically-impactful, it is little wonder that shapeshifting of entities or objects is often encountered in dreams. People like Sigmund Freud made it partly their life’s work to view dreams and dream acts such as shapeshifting and animal behavior as representative of the brain’s very structure and composition, and his emphasis upon the dreamwork as a means of dream interpretation has helped to redefine the dream state. Such imagery fits easily into the dream-like scenes and scenarios of Neil Jordan’s The Company of Wolves, which utilizes various cinematic and psychological techniques in order to emphasize the shapeshifting of dream entities as both an allegory for sexual and orgasmic desires and an expression of the human dream pattern.
Sexually orgasmic imagery is evinced in at least one transformation in the film, as narrated by the grandmother. The gory transformation of the enraged lycanthrope ex-husband against his wife and his subsequent beheading results in the fall of his bloodied head into the vat of milk. The film’s slow-motion depiction of this scene dramatically evokes Freud’s theories on yonic and phallic symbolism, with the milk within the vat splashing fulsomely in reaction to the plunge of the werewolf’s head. The head’s subsequent final reversion to its human state upon its reappearance to the surface of the vat is emblematic of the ultimate realization of sexual release. However, the act of the beheading of the werewolf may also be emblematic of Freud’s statement that the “dream-work represents castration by baldness, hair-cutting, the loss of teeth, and beheading” (Interpretation 170), whereby the werewolf’s sexual desire for his wife, who is now prohibitive in her sentiments regarding him (an Oedipal reference to the “wrongness” of such a relationship between the inferior upstart and the motherly figure), have been short-circuited by the appearance of the new husband (a ‘fatherly” figure), one who is already able to assert his authority by having had children with her, resisted the werewolf’s headstrong advances and struck his wife in the face when she expresses fascination with the late werewolf’s disembodied visage (whereas the werewolf sought to do far worse to her in retribution for her remarriage).
In another segment of the film, slightly contrary to the trend from much of the film, shapeshifting is also utilized in the seeming taming, rather than unleashing, by one character of another’s sexual passions. Rosaleen’s shooting of the Huntsman, his subsequent transformation into his wolfish form, and his acquiescence to Rosaleen in his transformed state would be most emblematic of Rosaleen being able to repress her sexual desires. The Huntsman, outwardly, shows himself to be as cunning and gentlemanly as he can to Rosaleen, thus confirming himself to be a fulfillment of all that Rosaleen was told of both men and wolves by her grandmother and arousing her hackles. The camera posits this, climactically, as an oppositional moment between the two characters through repeated shots and reverse-shots, with Rosaleen being shown with lower-key frontal lighting in her fright. Yet, when revealed as the wolf underneath, he doesn’t pursue her further and sits at his position opposite to her; she realizes his station in the world and she finds herself less apprehensive against physical contact with the wolf. The high key backlighting of the moment, accented by soft fill light, helps to affect the display of new-found intimacy between the two characters. The lighting and camera work in this contrast between the two characters both before and after the Huntsman’s transformation help to identify the displacement of Rosaleen’s sexual feelings for the Huntsman from the “problematic” human form (one which was plagued by his striking yellow eyes in his semi-shifted state) to the “acceptable” wolf form (one which, in comparison to the other fantastic transformations in the film, is not shown as being especially ravenous, visibly showy or predatory, but accommodating to Rosaleen’s touch). Freud considered this to be “dream displacement”, in which “it is often an indistinct element which turns out to be the most direct derivative of the essential dream thought” (On Dreams 34).
The approach to the depiction of such transformations, or, more specifically, the resulting forms of such transformations and the sexual subtexts of their accompanying scenarios are largely influenced by the bias of the character. From the older and more soured Granny’s perspective, the bloody, hyperbolic transformation of the estranged werewolf husband reveals a churlish, fearsome creature underneath an uncontrollable, ungainly, haggardly humanoid guise, one that is wrought by frustration and rage. In contrast, Rosaleen’s werewolf is cheery, cunning and quite in control of his human guise, and is only brought to his own violent transformation through being physically, momentarily wounded. Underneath the guise, however, is the downcast, humbled figure of a gray wolf who is a stark contrast in behavior and depiction to Granny’s bellicose beast. This wolf, in fact, may be emblematic of Rosaleen’s entire diegetic time within the dream: shy, downcast and selective of to whom she will open her ears and heart, yet possessing of a yearning, unfulfilled potential sexuality which is innate to herself.
The importance of shapeshifting as a shift to a more animalistic state is key to understanding the sexual and wishful undertones of such events. As shapeshifting usually involves the changing of the physical image of an entity from one state to another, on dreams. The transformation of characters into other species is emblematic, superficially, of a core mantra of the film, that men are sexually-charged animals. However, as it is a young woman who holds the dreams depicted, Freud holds that such dreams “fulfilled wishes which were active during the day but had remained unfulfilled. The dreams were simple and undisguised wish fulfillments” (On Dreams 21). Granny, on one hand, represents an authority figure who represses such thoughts as loathsome and perverse, although Granny is an expression of Rosaleen’s fears of her own sexuality. On the other hand, Rosaleen utilizes men in the film as figures of both fear and admiration, those who are able to hide themselves in public yet contain the most rapacious desires, thus imbuing the transformations in the film with new meaning.
In conclusion, The Company of Wolves succeeds in exhibiting characters and their actions as composite conveyances of the relationship between both the most instinctual desires from within the human mind and the most rigid repressions which are integrated from outside. In particular, the transformation of the lycanthropes in the film best conveys the eruption of desire – be it violent or from behind the dream facade, while giving due importance and reason to both aspects. Through targeted lighting, cinematography and special effects, the film testifies to shapeshifting as a tool of wish fulfillment, sensory distortion and sexual desire in one’s individual dreamscape.
Company of Wolves, The. Dir. Neil Jordan. Per. Sarah Patterson, Angela Lansbury, and Stephen Rea. Henstooth Video (Video & DVD), 1984. DVD.
Freud, Sigmund. Interpretation of Dreams, The. 3rd Edition. MobileRead. 2009. Print.
–. On Dreams. New York, New York. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. 1980. Print.