Tuesday, 11 June 2013

The Company of Wolves (1984): The Functions of Masochistic Desire in the British Horror Film Part Two

(This post was originally part of an undergraduate essay, I'm not sure if I agree with all of its arguments now, but it's an example of quite an early attempt at writing about masochism, which has been a recurring theme of my work)

Like Hellraiser, The Company of Wolves deals with masochistic desire in an unconventional way. Rather than being concerned with the negative effects of the masochistic desire of its young female heroine, The Company of Wolves shows it to be enabling for her, essential even for her ascension to womanhood. As Gaylyn Studlar writes: 'characters realise their “true” identity within the locus of masochistic desire'. Leo Bersani posits that following one's desire during the nascent stages of life is important in helping one overcome obstacles during the progression into adulthood
I wish to propose that most significantly, Masochism serves life. It is perhaps only because sexuality is ontologically grounded in masochism that the human organism survives the gap between the period of shattering stimuli and the development of resistant or defensive ego structures…Masochism would be the psychical strategy which partially defeats a biologically dysfunctional process of maturation. Masochism as the model of sexuality allows us to survive our infancy and early childhood.
In The Company of Wolves, succumbing to and owning our own desire is what allows us to "make the break" between childhood dependence and the future freedoms of womanhood - or so one hopes.

The idea of that masochism is inextricably linked to exhibitionism is shunned by both Hellraiser and The Company of Wolves: in both films the stage set for these desires is private, or at most features a company of two (this still includes the final scene of Frank’s torture by the Cenobites, as I think the contract is exclusively between Frank and Pinhead). The Company of Wolves’s initial scenes establish Rosaleen’s isolation. There is evident miscommunication between her and her family; the father says “she says I don’t understand her”, while the hostility between the sisters is blatant with the older repeatedly calling the younger a “pest”. The older sister has stairs and vast labyrinthine corridors to scale in order to reach her younger sister locked behind a door. The spatial distance shows visually the metaphysical separation between Rosaleen and her family - this maze-like mise-en-scène can be seen to represent Rosaleen’s mind.

We first see Rosaleen lying in bed - it is daylight and she is wearing her sister’s make-up. The rather sloppy way she has applied it hints at her lack of experience: she is experimenting with the trappings of female sexuality. This I believe is why she is in bed during the day with the door locked - so that she may explore herself in private, for her own pleasure. The interruption by the sister banging at the door can be viewed as the masochistic pleasure of punishment, adding a heightened sensation of indulging in the forbidden. The image of Rosaleen in bed is heavily reminiscent of another fairytale character, Snow White, whose physical description mirrors Rosaleen’s: 'as fair as snow, as rosy as the red blood and with hair and eyes as black as ebony'. This I think is a rather sly play on the fairy tale genre, as Rosaleen is not the typical passive beatific sleeper of Sleeping Beauty or Snow White fame. The very deliberate roundness of the red blusher on her cheeks seems to make itself a burlesque of fairy tale maidens' rosy cheeked beauty. The Company of Wolves, adapted from Angela Carter’s story of the same name, is a feminist retelling of Perrault’s Little Red Riding Hood (1697), giving agency back to its heroine, so what we are concerned with here is the psychology of the sleeper.

Sudden darkness fills the room while the camera zooms in on a close-up of Rosaleen’s disordered bed while she sleeps, tossing and turning (antithesis of Snow White’s death-like sleep), groaning as if having a disturbing dream. Despite sleep’s state of rendering one inert, Rosaleen is presented as very much alive: her displeasure is understood by the audience sonically and visually. This I see having parallels with an analyst examining a patient's psyche, looking at the dark desires present in their dreams. This idea is reinforced during the next scene’s dream sequence in which Rosaleen’s sister is killed by a pack of wolves. This fantasy or wish-fulfilment dream could represent a sibling jealousy and desire to be rid of the older, more physically mature sister. I think in wearing her sister’s make-up it shows Rosaleen’s projection and subsequent identification with her, therefore the fantasy of being chased is a masochistic one as it allows Rosaleen to inhabit the position of the person in danger and at the same time be granted autonomy by the death of the sister.

After becoming an only child, Rosaleen is made a red cape, by her grandmother. This fetishistic object symbolises Rosaleen’s imminent maturation, being the colour of menstrual blood and so signifying anatomically functioning sexuality. Even the choice of name “Rosaleen” is suggestive of a small rose bud about to bloom. The sister’s death forces Rosaleen out of aping another’s sexuality, and frees a space within the familial space for Rosaleen to be granted ownership of her own sexuality free of the competition a sexually superior older sister presents. The sibling rivalry is made explicit by the gift of the cape or hood as an act of favouritism, confirmed by Rosaleen’s mother telling her she was always her Grandmother's favourite.

Dreams and fantasies are vital in allowing one to express and make sense of desire. The function of the Horror film shares fundamental links with that of the fairy tale. Both allow the viewer or reader to put him/herself in the position of danger/passion to work out a particular fear or desire. Bruno Bettelheim clarifies the productive role reading fairytales (and, I propose, watching horror films) possesses: 'When unconscious material is to some degree permitted to come into awareness and worked through in imagination, it’s potential for causing harm-to ourselves or to others-is much reduced'. The majority of the film's action takes place within a dream; this awareness allows the audience to decode the symbolism present in the film.

Female masochism sits precariously in a feminist dialectic, as it positions the heroine in the very role it is challenging. As I stated previously, historically, masochism has been seen almost exclusively as a feminine state, when it occurs in men it is explained as having an emasculating effect. Kaja Silverman confirms this trend: 'It is unfortunate but not surprising that the perversion which has commandeered most of the literary and theoretical attention - sadism - is also the one which is most compatible with conventional heterosexuality'. This trend is also more at ease within a patriarchal, sexist society. Yet this film gives new attention to this desire, challenging imposed notions of female masochism being solely characterised by submission to stronger (male) sadistic sexuality. Masochism for Rosaleen is actively enjoying a socially dangerous search for pleasure, dangerous because it is not socially acceptable that women have strong sexual urges, let alone embrace them. The risk is to follow the fairy tale theme further - to be an unconventional woman in that world is to be a witch, and in this one a bitch or whore; both figures are ostracised.

Her liberation from childhood comes in the form of a threat of sexual violence, as Andrea Dworkin might say of the loss of our virginity. Although not necessarily pertaining to actual violence, it is often described within the language of misogyny suggesting a breach, a loss, a breaking-in and the "popping" of a cherry/hymen etc. This threat is personified by the form of the wolf. In The Uses of Enchantment, Bruno Bettelheim proposes what the figure of the wolf may represent for the reader/audience: 'the wild and destructive wolf stands for all the asocial, unconscious, devouring powers against which one must protect oneself, and can defeat through the strength of one's ego'. I think this is strongly tied to society’s fear of (and longing for) sex. Rather than heeding the warning of possible repercussions, dark strange sexuality is longed for by the individual as freedom to express the self. Instead of a flight or fright from the wolf, Rosaleen welcomes him in - literally, if you consider the detail of giving the wolf her grandmother’s address. Rosaleen’s courtship of sex and danger can be seen by her flirting with the wolf: “at least you’ve got your clothes on” she jokes after having just met him.

The bet between the wolf and Rosaleen seals the contract, the initial stage of their mutually delayed pleasure. Theodor Reik notes that 'Masochism is not, as has been surmised up till now, characterised by the pleasure in discomfort, but by pleasure in expecting of discomfort'. In this more sexually overt version, the wolf does not bother to disguise himself as Granny; instead Rosaleen finds him rocking expectantly in Granny’s chair, his shirt half-open in a suggestive manner. The wolf leaps up and inadvertently steps on Granny’s spectacles; we hear them crunch, then they both look down, their bodies mirrored and close. The repetition of question and answers begins by: “what big eyes you have”- “all the better to see you with” that allows the pleasure and pain of anticipation to build; the connection between foreplay and verbal exchange is implicit as items of clothing are removed piece by piece. Rosaleen gladly throws her red hood into the fire expressing her active desire. After the wolf removes his shirt, offering her his body, Rosaleen then shoots him, revealing our vulnerability when naked. Exposure in the masochistic union seems to require a dose of affection, it is only after Rosaleen feels sympathy towards the wolf (“I never knew a wolf could cry”) that he can shed his skin and reveal his true self. This puts me in mind of Andrea Dworkin’s idea of becoming “skinless” during a compatible sexual union: 'Sometimes, the skin comes off in sex. The people merge, skinless. The body loses its boundaries. We are each in these separate bodies; and then with someone and not with someone else, the skin dissolves altogether; and what touches is unspeakably, grotesquely visceral, not inside language or conceptualisation, not inside time; raw, blood and fat and muscle and bone, unmediated by form or formal limits. There is no physical distance, no self-consciousness, nothing withdrawn or private or alienated, no existence outside physical touch'.

The last sequence in Granny’s house is climatic; non-diegetic music reaches a crescendo as the wolf bursts forth shattering the glass window. This can be seen symbolically as the severance of innocence and loss of virginity but a simpler reading sees it as an action of 'self-shattering mechanisms of masochistic jouissance'. When the mother opens the door to find Rosaleen’s metamorphosis into a wolf (revealed by Rosaleen's crucifix around the wolf's neck) she does not let the father shoot her child; she allows Rosaleen to escape through the window. The metamorphosis also reflects Rosaleen’s change from child to woman. This scene fairly obviously signifies the Mother letting go of the child who has reached maturation. The wolf grants Rosaleen 'masochistic jouissance' the experience of which allows her break away from familial bonds.

The newly transformed couple run through the wood, triumphant music is heard as they are joined by other wolves forming a pack but the mood of the music alters becoming more sinister and threatening. The camera tracks this forest procession as it enters the house; this visually blends the dream sequence with the supposed reality of Rosaleen’s bedroom scene. The interior of the house has changed; it is now dark and covered in decaying leaves as if nature has taken over. Like Hellraiser, this decay stands for a corroding of boundaries of what is morally tolerated. The wolves breach the safety of the house, bursting in, breaking through paintings (culture, civilisation) and mirror the older sister’s path by rushing up the stairs, literally invading Rosaleen’s reality. The locales of dreams for masochistic fantasies are expounded by Studlar, 'characters in the masochistic text are often not quite sure if they are awake or asleep, perceiving or fantasizing into dream'. This last sequence is a warning of letting desires overcome us. Rosaleen awakens horrified; her masochistic fantasy is ruptured from the safe place of dreams by the wolf bursting through her bedroom window. This ending expounds the often problematic way in which we experience pleasure during the horror film. To keep filmic pleasure safely in context, reinforcement of the borders between fantasy and reality need to happen, via the moralistic cautionary ending. The explorations of dreams through film are safe and important, yet brought into daylight these fantasies are quite simply horrific.

Part One: Hellraiser (1987), The Functions of Masochistic Desire in the British Horror Film

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