Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Joaquin Cociña and Cristóbal León's The Wolf House (2018), which is receiving an exclusive global online premiere on MUBI, is showing from October 19 – November 17, 2018 as a Special Discovery.
La casa lobo (The Wolf House), a debut feature film from the duo of Chilean filmmakers Joaquín Cociña and Cristóbal León, who previously worked together on shorts, is a decidedly adult stop-motion animation, whose psychological portent is mysterious and dense, while its imaginative use of puppetry and bold animated design creates a world entirely its own, relatively rarely seen in contemporary cinema.
The historical background of The Wolf House, which opens with sweeping language, like a fairytale, is vague. But it’s a known fact that South America was the preferred hideout for the Nazis after World War II, and it’s hard not to think of this context at the film’s opening: A German propaganda video shows pots of honey and extols the texture this product from “The Colony,” as well as the traditional agriculture and life of German settlers in Southern Chile. The tone of the clip echoes what we know Nazi propaganda to have been like, dolling out ample footage with wholesome women and frolicking blond children. In fact, our main protagonist, Maria, with her neat blond hair, pale skin and blue eyes, may have just been such a child. And if Maria’s accent is German, is she too a transplant?
The Wolf House doesn't answer this question, though almost immediately—as if it were a Victorian horror—we are told of “horrible rumors” that surround the community, and so must be dispelled. As an aside joke, the filmmakers add in the voiceover that the little film was restored “thanks to Joaquín Cociña and Cristóbal León,” and is being shown with the help of the Chilean Government, thus playing at archival-material game. What we’re seeing is then supposedly that rare jewel of material culture to help us understand a particular people and time.
Yet the real mystery is not Maria’s vague pedigree but the masterful—indeed, breathtaking—disintegration of space, which like an endlessly shifting mosaic, seems real one minute but completely fantastic the next. After the propaganda clip, a title card, as in silent films, announces the basic premise: “Once upon a time, a beautiful girl named Maria lived in our community.” We learn that the wayward Maria let her pigs escape, and so must spend a hundred days alone as punishment, but instead chooses to escape. She runs away into the woods from the utopia and rigor she had been forced into, and perhaps also from history, from her social, cultural inheritance. But just what lies beyond The Colony?
After her escape from the settlement, Maria finds herself in an unknown house, unprotected, accompanied by two pigs. The wolf that gives the film its title is never seen but is heard throughout. Its palpable presence results in a soundtrack filled with menacing low growling. At another time, a giant eye, presumably of the wolf, peers through the house’s wall. This is not a warm, welcoming world, a haven that we might expect. No signs of civilization, no outlines of cities, or material comforts. Instead, from the start, everything in Maria’s austere world shivers and undulates, to the point that she too seems at times only partly human. In some sequences, she is but a disembodied voice we hear whispering on the voiceover. Other times she disintegrates before our eyes, such as when her body suddenly turns to plaster tied in tape and then crumbles to bits of pink styrofoam.
Yet Maria holds on to the firm belief that she can control her surroundings with her imagination alone, and so transform the pigs into her lasting companions, or perhaps her children, Ana and Pedro. Throughout, Maria tries to turn the inhospitable house into her private playground, and thus assert her independence, against the realities of hunger. As a result, the space thrills us with its myriad wild transformations, but also hints at Maria’s constant inner fright. The material objects, walls, doors, painting frames, constantly appear and disappear, the forms molten, uncertain. The effect at times is every bit as disorienting as in the early animations of Walerian Borowczyk and Jan Lenica, from the late 1950s and early ‘60s (particularly, The House, 1958). Moreover, Cociña and León’s ambitious combination of puppetry and stop-motion animation brings to mind such masters of form as Jan Švankmajer, and the long line of Surrealist paintings and films, which lent psychic metaphors equally physical forms. The Czech filmmaker is also a reference since the themes in his films, just as in The Wolf House, are so pointedly adult. Where in fairytales we might expect the fear to be mitigated by a sense of the highly improbable—fantastical creatures that don't belong to our world—nothing like this happens here. The domestic realm is dark, but its contours are eerily familiar. At the end, when The Colony’s official voice returns, and the propaganda film’s presumed director addresses us directly, we are forcefully thrust back into the Orwellian world.