Irene Falvey takes a look at Nathalie Biancheri’s Wolf, an international co-production of Ireland and Poland, which screened at the Virgin Media Dublin international Film Festival.
Wolf screened at the Lighthouse Cinema as part of the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival 2022. The film stars George MacKay as a young man with a rare mental disorder which leads him to believe that he is not a human but rather a wolf and is attending a clinic for people with the same condition. The writer and director Nathalie Biancheri takes this highly conceptual idea and explores how such a condition can be both internalised and expressed by the patients with some notable and memorable performances throughout.
While it can be argued that we are starting to see mental health issues feature more often in film and TV, Wolf manages to do something that a lot of media that discusses mental health does not. Very often a feature about mental health will follow the typical beats of: I have a problem, I will seek out help and struggle through that with ups and down and eventually at the end of the film my issues are overcome. Sanity regained, all wrapped up in a perfect Hollywood bow.
Wolf, however, takes a different approach. Jacob (George MacKay) upon his arrival to the clinic seems to be comparatively more in control of his condition than the other characters we meet- for example Lola Petticrew’s character, who sees herself as parrot, repeats every word of the group therapy session leader. Initially Jacob seems removed from everything that is going on around him, perturbed by the other characters’ behaviour, as a random horse’s neigh or a duck quack interrupts his thoughts. The longer Jacob stays at the clinic and the more he is exposed to the equally patronising and inhuman recovery methods of the clinic the more strongly he identifies with the wolf inside him. Ultimately Jacob decides he must live alongside this part of himself which is a much more realistic portrayal of a mental health issue; a lifelong condition that is managed rather than something that is cured forever because of one stint in a clinic.
The visuals and props used in this film help to capture the mood it is trying to achieve; disturbing and yet darkly comical. While it can be difficult to watch anybody who is struggling mentally, focusing in on this particular condition invites some harrowing scenes while also bringing up some twisted humour. There is a haunting childlikeness to the pictures they must all draw of the animal they identify themselves as, only to burn these pictures when they get released from the clinic. While they all must wear identical uniforms, if progression is noted the patients are given “prop privileges” which is why Lola Petticrew’s character often wears a colourful plumage and a beak, and another character can often be seen scurrying around while wearing a squirrel tail. The German Shepherd identifying character (Fionn O’Shea) can eat from a dog bowl if he is well behaved. While these aspects are quite light, it becomes darker when patients are led outside wearing dog collars for example.
Portraying a person who believes they are an animal is presumably no easy feat, despite this the actors in this film rise to the challenge impressively. Jacob can howl at the moon and his character, as well as Lily-Rose Depp’s character (identifying as a wildcat) must spend a significant amount of their scenes, in which they fall for each other, crawling like animals instead of walking like humans. The patients undergo two different kinds of treatment methods at the clinic, and while the contrast is stark, the methods are both spine chillingly awful. On the one hand the group leader gets everyone to dance to a lively 80’s pop hit, trying to show them how they could have such great lives, so why not just be normal and happy? The crueller aspect of treatment comes from Paddy Considine’s character, known as the Zookeeper. He forces patients to admit that they are not in fact an animal by plunging them into realities that they cannot see and endangering their lives in the process. In one particularly memorable scene, a patient who believes that they are a squirrel is forced to try and climb a branchless tree, only to actually break off an entire human nail. The film does not shy away from the grotesque and harrowing aspects that can arise from a group of people in need of help, being led by a sick and twisted taskmaster.
Overall, Wolf is a film which deals with a highly psychologically complex condition, all while managing to weave in an ill-fated love story and a host of nuanced characters with tremendous skill. The viewer is given a sense of autonomy, we are never given huge chunks of the background of these characters and why X and Y in their life led them to where they are now. While the condition discussed here may be one that people struggle to accept and acknowledge, we get a realistic and distinctive portrayal of the patients as they cope and struggle equally with what they are going through. A unique film, which expertly walks the line between comically dark and shockingly disturbing.
Wolf screened on 4th March 2022 at the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival.
Wolf is released in cinemas from 18th March 2022.