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It’s commonplace that folk and fairy tales have their dark sides, but they don’t come much darker than in The Wolf House. Fusing Grimm, the early shorts of David Lynch and the stop-motion work of Jan Svankmajer into a visually engrossing, reference-rich and disturbing tale about the mental delirium of a young girl, the deeply uncanny pic makes for an unsettling viewing experience, a creative tour de force whose endlessly fascinating visuals are deliberately seductive and repellent in equal measure. The film, which has “cult following” written all over it, has been garnering positive festival buzz since receiving its Annecy award, most recently at Lanzarote’s Muestra de Cine.
Pre-title credits are reminiscent of a 1960s propaganda film, as a pastor tells us that what we’re about to see was rescued from a colony in Patagonia where a community of Germans live lives of idyllic isolation. The pastor hopes that what we’ll see will put an end to the nasty rumors circulating around the colony. What’s not clear from the film is that the “pastor” is a stand-in for Paul Schafer, who ran the Dignity Colony, a German immigrant community in Chile from the ’60s built around the idea of family values. Schafer was later imprisoned, among other things, for child abuse. (The theme was also tackled in Florian Gallenberger’s 2015 The Colony.)
The Wolf House is set up as a warning film made by Schafer to prevent people from trying to escape from the community, which many did. After letting three pigs escape from the colony and being punished, a disobedient German girl called Maria (voiced by Amalia Kassai) flees into the woods where, knowing there’s a wolf nearby, she enters a very weird house indeed in which she finds two of the escaped pigs.
Alone in the house, her imagination goes wild and the pigs turn into children, Ana and Pedro, who for a while are half-human, half-pig. Maria becomes their mother, using on them the parenting techniques that have been used on her. “Beautiful creatures who will never abandon me” is how Maria describes them. Everything this bizarre half-family does is observed through the window by the eye of the wolf: Maria’s fate, bleak enough at the start of the film, looks even bleaker by the end, when the food in the house runs out.
But it’s not for its plot that The Wolf House is remarkable. Set up and shot in art galleries across several countries as members of the public looked on, it does have about it the air of a gallery installation in progress, and it’s the powerfully surreal, disorienting visuals — the almost too-abundant filmic representation of Maria’s mental disturbance — that viewers will take away. All the action takes place within the confines of the Wolf House, and it’s fair to say that if “play” is pressed for any 10 seconds of the film chosen at random, there will be something going on to catch the eye.
The bodies of Maria, Pedro and Ana, as well as other objects, undergo startling transformations of size and shape as the paper mache used to make them ravels and unravels. Cartoon images emerge from the walls of the house and become solid before our eyes. Artwork and eyes bleed paint that may be tears; limbs detach and reattach. The house doesn’t stay still for a second, and neither does the camera — the film’s entire length is effectively one long sequence shot, a representation of the ever-shifting, ever-darkening nature of Maria’s imaginings.
Following the commands of the directors’ — and Maria’s — fantasizing, toys, paintings and objects become powerful (if not always clear) symbols, drawing on folk tales, religion and politics. In one example of the movie’s attention to visual detail, a swastika fleetingly becomes a window frame. Repeat viewings would be necessary to pick up everything that’s going on, and the viewer quickly gives up on trying to figure out the meaning of it all, succumbing to the sheer visual abundance.
If this all sounds creepy, then it is, but even more than that, it is uncanny, breaking down the barriers between the familiar and the unfamiliar to disturbing effect. This applies to the soundwork also, with Amalia Kassai’s German-inflected Spanish recorded so close up as almost to be ASMR, but with few of ASMR’s pleasurable connotations.
The danger of such visually striking filmmaking is that the viewer’s attention is held rapt by it to the exclusion of the emotional undertow, which in this case is pretty strong. Behind all the tech wizardry, it shouldn’t be forgotten that The Wolf House is tragic, the story of a young girl who is painfully learning, as did the inhabitants of Schafer’s colony, that sometimes a house can be the terrifying opposite of a home.
Production companies: Diluvio, Globo Rojo Films
Voice cast: Amalia Kassai, Rainer Krause
Directors: Cristobal Leon, Joaquin Cocina
Screenwriters: Cristobal Leon, Joaquin Cocina, Alejandra Moffat
Producers: Catalina Vergara, Niles Atallah
Directors of photography: Cristobal Leon, Joaquin Cocina
Art directors: Natalia Geisse, Cristobal Leon, Joaquin Cocina
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