Interview: Director Nathalie Biancheri on Her Dysphoric New Film ‘Wolf’
Image by Conor Horgan / Focus Features
Do not – we repeat – do not approach Wolf (in theaters today, December 3, via Focus Features) with any preconceived notions whatsoever. Seriously. Zero. Zilch. Nil. Sure it’s a film “about” a man who believes he’s a wolf. And, yes, you could say that’s the narrative through-line. But there’s little use trying to get a bigger bead on things by tapping into the traditional depictions of the intersection of man and beast.
Why? Because this wolf definitely howls at its own moon.
That means you won’t find clues by jumping over the garden wall with Prokoviev’s Peter, though you will alight on a similarly sublime menagerie. Nor will you gain revelation under the bedcovers of Little Red Riding Hood’s grandma, though you might enjoy the similarly icy warmth. Should you then ride the wind with Hopi Fog Clan shapeshifters? Nope. Should you live the myth of German artist Joseph Beuys’ month-long coyote communing? Uh-uh.
But while Wolf is indeed a breed apart from all of the above cultural precursors, it does share their unique singularity. See, there’s a reason why Peter and Red are parts of our cultural lexicon. And that’s because both tapped deep into our collective depth. The same applies to both Beuys and the Hopi, though their intentions were more about the collective depth of the wolf. Merge the two pursuits – and the two reveals – and you’re talking writer-director Nathalie Biancheri‘s cinematic language.
To test our theory, we Zoomed straight to the main source and nabbed some cyber-time with Biancheri herself. And after trying her patience with an onslaught of cultural guesses and maybes, we actually picked up the insights we were seeking. Like, for instance, why the titular young man thinks he’s a wolf to begin with.
Jacob (George MacKay) has a severe case of species dysphoria. And he has it because Biancheri gave it to him in order to play out a condition that will truly make you squirm. Or claw or ruffle or growl. You see, species dysphorics genuinely believe they’re animals. And when the director learned of the condition, she believed these beliefs would be worth due exploration.
“I’d seen a little news piece about a woman who thought she was a cat,” she recalls. “I’d never heard of species dysphoria, and thought it was quite an interesting phenomenon.”
Still, the world is full of interesting phenomena; it takes real edge and angle to turn them into good story. In Biancheri’s case, that meant immediately putting distance between herself and the launching-off post.
She explicates, “I didn’t simply want to do a piece about species dysphoria today, and kind of interrogate that in a real sense. But I was interested in the questions about identity that it brought up, and that I felt were relatable to everyone.”
There too, though, a storyteller could easily be hamstrung by convention, especially with such a still unconventional question as that of identity. Unless you “explore [the question] two different ways,” and you “depart from the whole [convention] thing and go into fiction.” That is, investigate the twin poles of “people who truly, deeply believe they’re an animal, and individuals who are finding solace in wearing a costume or behaving like an animal.”
Furries, we ask? “Not exactly,” Biancheri retorts, and then adds that she “didn’t really know a whole lot about them then.”
“It was more about answering the question on an existential level,” she continues, “and again, splitting it into two. Someone who really, really feels it and finds it insufferable to wear a human mask in order to repress that feeling; and others like the parrot or German shepherd who are choosing to behave like animals rather than intrinsically believing it.”
Whichever side of side of the affliction one is coming from, in Wolf the treatment means being sent to “The Zoo.” And that zoo has got a name: True You. But the actions of its Zookeeper are pretty much unnameable. Pretty much unspeakable too, if we’re being honest.
As in real life, there isn’t a cure for species dysphoria. And like in real life, mental health professionals are attempting a variety of treatments. Unlike real life however, True You employs treatments that seem designed to reduce a patient to tears, simply so they’re more easily reduced to ashes. Or something like that.
Think a diabolical Dr. Doolittle in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and you’ll get some of the idea. Place that Oregon State Hospital ward in the outer boonies and you’ll get more. Then add people who believe they’re a panda, a squirrel, a horse and a spider, as well as that parrot and German Shepherd, and you’ll begin to feel its real arc – or Ark…a moving glass menagerie constantly bombarded by stones.
All in support of our Wolf, the doctor, and a Wildcat – played by Lily-Rose Depp – who haunts True You like the furniture. Possessed furniture. And as wildly curious as her animal identity attests. It’s up to Wildcat to get Wolf out of his identity crisis. And it’s up to Wolf to break Wildcat out of The Zoo. Whatever it takes for them to unveil their “True You.”
We won’t give away any more of this beautifully sordid story. We will say it’s shot and played with lithe alacrity. It’s a bit unnervingly paced too. If you like your love stories to be jarring, you’ll really get caught up in Wolf. Provided of course that you’ve no fear of where humanity and the animal kingdom cross paths.
By all means, leave the preconceived notions at home; and don’t be alarmed if you end up letting out a howl or two – that happens to everyone who suddenly discovers their own feral tendencies