There are now more trees to hug in the Northeast than at any point since the eighteenth century. In the good old days, the trees were cut down for construction, firewood, and farming. Now, we build with concrete, burn old coffee grounds in decorative stoves, and convert old farmhouses into weekend rentals for skiers and hikers. This is good for the squirrels. Once, it was said that a squirrel could mount a tree on the coast of Maine or Massachusetts, and scuttle rattily through the canopy all the way to the Ohio River without putting one of his filthy little paws to the ground. But is it good for the humans?
Samu Fuentes’ The Skin of the Wolf, newly released into the digital wild by Netflix, is about the dangers of re-wilding. Some of us are already familiar with them: coyotes eating your pets, bears rifling through your trash cans, files of hikers spoiling your view by walking pointlessly from nowhere to nowhere, gangs of squirrels lounging under the street lights as they work out who gets which room in your home when they take over.
Civilization means de-wilding, said Freud, and re-wilding is the end of us. Freud knew all about this, because he took an annual walking holiday. Note the doctor’s terminology. He went ‘walking’ in civilized garb—tweed plus-fours and coat—not ‘hiking’ in sweat-wicking plastic t-shirts and GoreTex trousers with too many pockets. He also wrote the case study of the Wolf Man, his analysis of the Russian aristocrat Sergei Pankejeff. It turned out that Freud, in his mythologizing zeal, misdiagnosed Pankejeff’s dream.
The Skin of the Wolf is set in Asturias, in the Spanish Pyrenees, sometime in the nineteenth century. It concerns the domestic arrangements and allegorical fate of Martinon, a brutal wolf-hunter who survives by the skin of his teeth as the last and only inhabitant of a ruined village high in the mountains. Martinon (Mario Casas) has no one to speak to, except when he walks down to the village in the valley, a round trip of four days. He keeps his spirit up by grunting.
Martinon protects the villagers from the wolves, and the villagers pay Martinon by the pelt. When people lived among wolves, we had the good sense to despise and fear them. Now, living in cities, we romanticize them. When the wolves read White Fang and The Call of the Wild, they recognized our weakness for the myth of noble savagery. For decades, they have exploited our susceptibilities, and advanced towards the cities under cover of their propaganda unit, the huskies. The Skin of the Wolf is a setback for the advocates of the vulpine lifestyle.
On his trips to the village, Martinon stops at the mill to have rough and floury sex with Pascuela the miller’s daughter. When the publican advises the lightly dusted hunter to marry so he will have a son to leave his house to, Martinon declines. Still, he buys Pascuela (Ruth Diaz) in traditional fashion from her father; the tradition being that of remote villages and, given Martinon’s previously stated objections to marrying, the Freudian death wish. There isn’t much to do in Martinon’s hut in the evenings, apart from listen to the wind and the howling wolves, and scrape skin from wolf pelts with a sharpened rock. Soon, Pascuela tells Martinon that she is pregnant.
Pascuela and her baby die in the first winter. In the spring, Martinon drags their bodies down to the village and demands a refund. The miller (Armando Aguire) confesses that Pascuela was a widow, and pregnant by a villager when he sold her to Martinon. He offers his second daughter Adela (Irene Escolar) in compensation. They are married the next day, and she is still wearing her wedding dress when she climbs back up the mountains with him.
As Martinon should have known, the female of the species is deadlier than the male. Adela is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. The silence between them is unbearable. So is the bravura display of vomiting from Mario Casas. Adela’s mother has issued her with a small parcel of poisonous herbs for when life with a grunting, rutting stranger becomes unbearable. All the better to poison his tea with.
The wilderness is awesome in the traditional sense, magnificent and terrifying. Aitor Mantxola’s cinematography is epic—a pity, then, that the US release is limited to the smallest of screens—but also digitally detailed, with every twig and leaf supernaturally alive and of equal value, as in an early Millais painting. Martinon, losing his human qualities in his isolation, is just one more life form struggling to survive, and closer to the wolves than the humans as his life turns into a dog’s dinner.
The soundtrack, freed from speech, is loudly alive too. Pine cones go off like firecrackers when Martinon uses them for kindling. The death rattle of a deer is like a buzzsaw. When Martinon eats, we hear bits of deer bone rattling around his teeth. Everything is symbolically ripe as in a myth or a fairy tale, but the meanings are elusive and unmoored. Not since the weasels took over Toad Hall in The Wind in the Willows have we experienced such an allegorically rich parable of re-wilding. Where language dies, sight and non-verbal sound take over; just like MTV.
Perhaps The Skin of the Wolf is a grunting analysis of the Hispanic battle of the sexes, in which the price of female emancipation is the emasculation of men. Possibly there is some Spenglerian allegory here about the decay of modern Europe, or the price of post-Franco freedoms in Spanish society, with Martinon as an inarticulate double of Nietzsche’s ‘Last Man’. The Spanish are wealthier and freer now, but their birthrate has collapsed, and their families have been eroded. As the villages empty out, the Pyrenees are rewilding and the wolves and bears returning. Economically, the wolf has been at the door since 2008. And the barbarian invaders, as in the time of Charles Martel, are moving northwards through the Pyrenean passes.
The muteness of the characters, the grandeur of the mountains, and the crunchiness of the soundtrack bounce these resonances loudly through the empty landscape, as in a dream. I don’t know what The Skin of the Wolf means, but it is beautiful, cruel and engrossing. On padded paws, it drags you from the Netflix couch to the psychoanalyst’s couch. See it before the lights go out and the squirrels take over.
Dominic Green is Culture Editor of Spectator USA.