Tag Archives: Neil Jordan

LIST CANDIDATE: THE COMPANY OF WOLVES (1984)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Sarah Patterson, Angela Lansbury, David Warner

PLOT: A young girl moves from the city to a big house in the country. Her dreams mirror her dissociation from her surroundings and family, and an examination of her development as a person (and as a girl becoming a woman) follows through increasingly odd studies of gender and of the notion of the werewolf.

Still from The Company of Wolves (1984)
WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Neil Jordan’s second film is co-written by the sadly deceased Angela Carter, and her literary tralents are on full display here in an extremely layered and artful examination of gender and sexuality set against traditional folk tales such as Red Riding Hood. Ostensibly a single narrative, Company of Wolves loses itself in stories within stories, all held together as one long dream sequence. This film is quite a feverish and nuanced experience that is a must for inclusion on the List.

COMMENTS: Angela Carter was a fine writer, and anyone who is a fan of the written as well as the cinematic weird who hasn’t yet discovered her would be advised to do so. Company of Wolves draws on the traditions of spoken word narrative and folktales seen through a modern lens. Its source material is Carter’s short story collection “The Bloody Chamber,” which she herself described as an attempt “not to do ‘versions’ or, as the American edition of the book said, horribly, ‘adult’ fairy tales, but to extract the latent content from the traditional stories.” What the viewer gets is a modern retelling of Red Riding Hood with all the sexual connotations not only intact but made explicit for a modern switched-on audience. More than just a straight fantasy and horror, The Company of Wolves is a study of the feminine psyche and its attitudes toward desire and familial responsibility, told through a rich narrative web. Perhaps the most indelible image is “the red wedding,” which gives “Game of Thrones” a run for it’s money in regards of worst end to a wedding possible. Grandma’s inevitable fate in this film takes a visually distinctive and surreal twist on the standard “what big teeth you have” story. One of Carter’s few forays into script writing, this film makes you wish her unique talents were more widely adapted for the big screen; furthermore, it showed Neil Jordan would be a talent to watch out for.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The movie has an uncanny, hypnotic force; we always know what is happening, but we rarely know why, or how it connects with anything else, or how we can escape from it, or why it seems to correspond so deeply with our guilts and fears. That is, of course, almost a definition of a nightmare.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: THE BUTCHER BOY (1995)

DIRECTED BYNeil Jordan

FEATURING:  Eamonn Owens, Sean McGinley, Peter Gowen, Alan Boyle, Andrew Fullerton, Fiona Shaw, Aisling O’Sullivan, Stephen Rea, Sinéad O’Connor

PLOT: Against the backdrop of Cold War absurdity, a rebellious 1950’s Irish youth descends

Still from The Butcher Boy (1995)

into a psychotic maelstrom upon the deaths of his dysfunctional parents and abandonment by his best friend.

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST:   Based on the prize winning stream of consciousness novel by Pat McCabe, the movie flows like a grim fantasy regurgitated by a mescaline-intoxicated James Joyce.  The combination of genres and mild-mannered, cavalier narrative of perversity and violence make The Butcher Boy a weird and wonderful, if unsettling viewing experience.

COMMENTS:  High production values and slick editing distinguish this utterly bizarre story about a cheerfully deluded boy’s descent into madness, mayhem and murder. The lighthearted presentation of repellent material makes for a heavy cinematic encounter that timid viewers will find unpleasant and unsettling.

Francie (Owens) is a slightly delinquent youth. His father (Rea) is a talented, but unrecognized musician—and an anti-social, violent alcoholic. His bipolar mother does her best to distract herself from the family’s depressing existence via a zealous plethora domestic rituals.

Despite his oddball, dysfunctional family life, Francie manages to hang on until his mother commits suicide. The tragedy triggers a series of frantic misfortunes that lead to an insidious and inevitable structural decay of the framework that Francie desperately needs for a normal maturation.

Lacking valid coping options, Francie immerses himself in a comic book-fueled world of fantasy, accentuated by typical boyish adventures and games. But the games become increasingly grim when misfortune and his own recklessness lead him ever further astray.

Beguiled by hallucinatory visions, Francie is off first to a Catholic reform school where he stabs a pedophile priest, then to a lunatic asylum where the staff jolts him with shock treatments and a fellow patient warns him of impending trepanation-style lobotomy. Concluding that the damning chain of unalterable events is rooted in a neighbor’s hatred, Francie finally plunges over the dam of reality. Maddened and desperate, he cascades away on the headwaters of a psychotic mission to compel salvation and resolution via maniacal revenge.

The Butcher Boy is a viewing experience steeped in incongruity. The plot is cinematically presented as a comedy. It is anything but. Grim, twisted, and gritty, the sequence of events that unfold are nothing to laugh at. The storybook Irish countrysides of Warrenpoint and Monaghan accent this foreboding tale, and clash with starkly seedy Dublin locations. Discordant hallucination sequences disrupt the balance of reality. The resulting contrast between subject matter and tempo results in an arty, but disturbing film.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Though the movie sometimes looks as if the authentic Irish wit, colour and blarney has been filtered through the sensibility of a Buñuel or Polanski, Jordan never allows the surreal/expressionist aspects to dominate.”–Geoff Andrew, Time Out Film Guide

The Butcher Boy trailer

CAPSULE: ONDINE (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Neil Jordan

FEATURING: Colin Farrell, Alicja Bachleda, Alison Barry, Stephen Rea

PLOT: An Irish fisherman scoops up a girl in his nets one day; is she actually a selkie?

Still from Ondine (2009)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  It’s not weird (that’s not a spoiler; weird is an aesthetic choice, and the movie might not be weird even if Ondine is a selkie).

COMMENTS:  Neil Jordan has gone weird from time to time (The Company of Wolves, The Butcher Boy), but even when he’s not being totally bizarre he’s often at least provocative (The Crying Game).  It’s therefore strange to see him helm a movie that plays it so safe, that aims so squarely at a middlebrow arthouse crowd who only ask for picture postcard vistas and enough painfully dramatic soul-searching to make the happy ending seem well-earned.  Starting with the myth of the woman from the sea who falls in love with a mortal man, Ondine breathes in magic, but exhales mere quality.  The cinematography by Christopher Doyle captures the quaint beauty of an Irish fishing village and the majesty of the surrounding ocean (often shot on overcast days so that the sky and the sea share a uniform blue-gray tint).  Performances by the principals are also top notch.  As Syracuse, the on-the-wagon alcoholic subsistence fisherman with a sickly daughter, Colin Farrell projects ancient guilt and sadness: this bedraggled, sad-eyed ex-rake never looks more at home than when he’s in a confessional.  Polish beauty Alicja Bachleda has an otherworldly sensuality that serves her character well; she goes swimming in sun dresses, then lounges in the sun like a seal with the wet clothes clinging to her.  Young Alison Barry does fine in a role we’ve seen many times before: the sad outcast kid whose belief in magic teaches the adults in her life a thing or two about the power of hope.  As for the script, in its mechanics, it’s hard to criticize (though I would have killed off a different character).  Jordan’s writing provides proper character depth and ties up loose ends cleverly.  The film’s overall narrative strategy, on the other hand, isn’t as easy to cozy up to.  It starts as a slow but pleasant drama with the ambiguity about Ondine’s true nature driving the tale, then wanders around in some melodramatic side alleys before resolving itself with a thriller conclusion that drains the magic out of the film.  The film also has a technical issue: for Americans, at least, the dialogue can be hard to make out due to the authentic Irish brogues and low conversational sound levels.  Stephen Rea, in particular, is indecipherable when he hushes his voice; I couldn’t turn the sound up loud enough to make out what he was saying.  Overall, it’s easy to see how someone could be briefly charmed by Ondine, but it’s hard to imagine even the most romantic soul being enchanted by it.  It’s more of a movie to flirt with than to take home to bed.  It seems like the kind of classical, meditative, risk-free story older filmmakers tackle when they want to make sure they are being taken seriously as artists—but it’s that very self-seriousness that makes what emerges a minor work.

“Ondine” was a 1939 play by Jean Giraudoux about a water nymph who falls in love with a knight.  Tales of women from the sea falling in love with mortal men are a common motif in fairy tales.  The film Ondine adapts Celtic folklore about the selkie, a seal who can shed her skin to become a beautiful female and mate with mortal men.  The same legend formed the basis of John Sayles’ 1994 independent arthouse hit The Secret of Roan Innish.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…works best when it stays within the blurry in-between space separating the everyday world from that belonging to story-time flights of fancy.”–Manhola Dargis, The New York Times (contemporaneous)