Adams and Jefferson on Pan’s Labyrinth
Two old friends dissect the best del Toro film and discuss the career of the great modern master.
Two old friends dissect the best del Toro film and discuss the career of the great modern master.
Pan’s Labyrinth – 2006
Written and Directed by Guillermo del Toro
Starring Sergi López, Maribel Verdú, Ivana Baquero, Doug Jones, Ariadna Gil, Álex Angulo
Cool Papa E:
Throughout this awards season, as we see the accolades pile up for del Toro, one can’t help but think this swarm is as much appreciation for his past work as for what he achieved here. One movie that rises to the top of mind is Pan’s Labyrinth. The film is a representation of many recurrent del Toro themes and as horrific, beautiful, gory and hopeful a story as we’ve seen him tell.
It comes in between the two Hellboy films, and perhaps for this reason it was not rightfully given more prestige in the awards area beyond the technical stuff. There are at least 3 films I think it should have supplanted in the race for Oscar that year. Little Miss Sunshine being the worst of them. The others are The Queen and Letters from Iwo Jima. I can’t say The Departed didn’t deserve it as a lifetime achievement for Scorsese. I haven’t seen Babel. Nor have I ever been drawn to see it.
As time moves forward, those films fade from memory, but Pan’s Labyrinth shines. Where does it stand for you?
We Miss E:
Well compared to the movies that were nominated for Best Picture that year, it resonates much more than any of them. I do like The Departed, but I agree that the others are mostly forgettable. Babel was written and directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, and I think it’s a better film than his recent award winners. It’s worth noting that del Toro, Inarritu, and Alfonso Cuaron have been friends for over a quarter century, when they were just three film students in Mexico with big dreams. It’s pretty crazy to think that all three of them have won the Best Director Oscar in a five-year span. And one could argue that none of them won for their best work. But that’s a topic for another write-up.
So what makes Pan’s Labyrinth stand out? There is a lot to talk about. I guess I’ll start in very general terms. Del Toro has an amazing imagination. He creates a fully realized world, and populates that world with an incredible array of interesting, original creatures, both human and otherwise. Take del Toro’s unique imagination, combine it with his scholarly knowledge of film history and theory, and the sky is the limit for what he can achieve on a film set. I guess it is the immersive quality of the world he has created here that most appeals to me. With every viewing new details, new references make themselves known.
What makes this movie stand out for you?
Two incredible forces inhabit the work of del Toro. The first is he has deceptively simple stories. In this case, a young girl Ofelia and her pregnant mother are trapped in the clutches of an evil Falange officer. He’s a dictator in training, and he’s surrounded himself with his army in an old mill as a bunker of sorts. This is a world Ofelia has no right to any hope within.
That’s where the other force comes, in the form of a grotesque faun and his little garish faeries. By all rights, she should be more alarmed by the supernatural forces, but she instinctively is not. This is exactly as del Toro expects of us, though.
Our history with fauns is a complicated one, so much so that they incorrectly translated the movie title based on the name of a Greek god who is also goat like that is an overly sexual trickster. Since the word Pan is more familiar, they skipped on calling it The Faun’s Labyrinth. Del Toro said it best when he says “If he was Pan, the girl would be in deep shit.”
In the spirit of an audience that is used to bowing to earthly power while denying the mystical stuff exists anywhere but in our heads, del Toro leads us. We think the girl could be imagining this stuff. We’d be wrong to assume so.
This is what del Toro has mastered. Cold reality, in straight lines and harsh, uncaring rulers countered by warm mystical worlds that tend to be represented in softer, but still scary, tones.
Did you experience this counterbalance the same way I did?
That is very well stated. I think del Toro has tried to achieve this counterbalance in all of his films. The stark realities of the world as we perceive it, and the myths and legends of another, deeper world. It’s not the magic realism of Marquez, where one could casually converse with a ghost while preparing supper. There is a dichotomy here; you have to choose sides. It is no accident that he chooses a child to be the central character, here and in several of his other films. A child has not lost that sense of whimsy, of wonder, that has been deadened in most adults caught up in the day-to-day.
Perhaps that is what del Toro is saying; this other world exists, but most people have become inured to the banalities of everyday life. The drone of traffic drowns out the song of the faeries. Although as you point out, his mystical worlds are not a place of lightness and joy. They are peopled with dark corners, and creatures to fear.
Maybe we should take a look at some of the ways del Toro delineates the real and the mystical worlds, through creative means. One of the things that stands out to me is the color palette of the film. The scenes that capture the harsh realities of life at the mill are shot primarily in cold tones of blue and green. The fantasy world is captured in richer tones, of yellow and amber.
What do you think Del Toro is trying to say with his carefully chosen colors?
It’s all part of the world that the innocent notice, while the rest of us are preoccupied. The colors are definitely part of the deliberation for the viewer. When even the faun notes that Ofelia is disobedient, but ultimately makes the right choices, we can’t help but think this is due to her following closely her instincts as a child. Cold and stark are not part of her nature, so naturally she avoids them.
This happens even in the pale man’s lair. She’s told to pick the lockbox that is perfect and centered, she goes for the well-worn and off-kilter one. She never hesitates. The experience for the viewer seems to be that del Toro is telling us that following our natural instinct even trumps the carefully laid instructions laid out for us to follow.
Thinking of it this way, the faun is given the same treatment as her mother. They both have the best intentions for her, but even the mystical being can’t beat a young child with full imagination as her guide.
Reality, not to be ignored, starts to interfere with her plans. Everything begins to close around our young protagonist, as well as the wicked antagonist. When this happens, the worlds begin to merge. This is notices when we see artwork of the surreal bleed into the real. The faun’s head at the base of the stair is a perfect example. This is in keeping with what the faun said about those who know what to look for…
The most interesting mixture of the real versus the mystic takes place in the pale man’s lair. Del Toro said his inspiration for the creature came from a few places. First is the Japanese phantom legend of Tenome, Manta rays and, of course, the Catholic Church. The creature is representative of how institutions devour the innocent and helpless. As we see Ofelia wander through the dangerous riches of the sanctuary, we are treated with images that look like stations of the cross. Instead of Jesus suffering, though, its little children being eaten by this beast.
What images move you most and why?
The Pale Man sequence is the film’s centerpiece. I do love these painted images of the pale man slaying children, which are painted like iconography of the middle ages. They are a great touch, and only visible for a few brief seconds in the background. The pile of children’s shoes in the corner of the banquet hall is even worse. There is something unnaturally disturbing about them, because it shows how many children he has devoured, as well as evoking those horrific Holocaust images of piles of shoes. And the awful way he devours the fairies by biting their heads off. (Del Toro’s staging of this was inspired by the Goya painting “Saturn Devouring His Son”). This sequence is unforgettable from start to finish. It is also wholly original; I can’t think of anything like it in any other movie.
There is a lot of violence in this movie, both seen and implied, and that leaves a powerful impression on me. The violence begins fairly early, when the Captain beats in a peasant’s face with the butt end of a bottle. Over the course of the film people are shot, stabbed, beaten and tortured. The violence is never stylized as it would be in most films; rather, it is just a part of life. But it is the wonders of the mystical world that leave an even stronger impression than the violence.
The subtle visual cues are great. You mentioned the faun’s head on the staircase. I think it’s interesting that the doctor is the one who has his hand there. The doctor who will soon be dead, but who makes a choice to die on his own terms.
So, what else resonates for you?
The scene with the bottle is reputed to be inspired by something witnessed. Del Toro states it was peculiar to him that the bottle never broke. I hope I am mistaken and that he never truly did witness this.
The one scene that feels most out-of-place for me is when Vidal performs surgery on his cheek. It’s odd and out of place with the rest of the story, especially when one considers that he doesn’t show signs of bleeding at all.
By this point in the story, though, the real and magical worlds are beginning to intersect. This is implied with the doctor’s hand on the wooden faun, and perhaps Vidal’s own fantasy of living a life as honorable as his (likely equally horrible) father is starting to give way to the reality that the righteous are going to win out.
In this manner, the tool that is the revolutionaries fit into the framework of the film as a counterbalance. He literally sees his child handed over to people who are going to obliterate and evidence of what he thought was his destiny. All the while, beautifully, Ofelia achieves her own beautiful destination.
Del Toro reached a pinnacle here, and I think everyone who recognized his work on the good, albeit inferior Shape of Water realizes this too. Hence the reason the more recent film won so many awards.
This is what is so absurd about Oscar. Many years we find people winning “achievement” awards to make up for previous years when they should have won, but didn’t. Often due to other films that have also gotten achievement awards. It’s a shame how it seems impossible to just remove the diffracted view and recognize greatness when we see it.
Given what you know about del Toro and his reverence for cinematic history, what do you think his take on the absurdity of awards? After all, like you pointed out, Kobe Bryant has as many Oscars as Hitchcock.
I think del Toro appreciates the fickle nature of artistic endeavor. But he did talk in an after-party interview about the legacy of Oscar, how he was now part of a group that included many of his idols.
I think this movie was just a little ahead of the curve. Many films that are now considered classics were ignored by the Academy at the time. To provide one example: Not only did Vertigo not win a single Academy Award, it was not even nominated for picture, director, actor, actress, musical score or cinematography. This in a year when Gigi (which is now all but forgotten) won Best Picture and several other awards as well.
So maybe the Oscar wins for Guillermo this year will encourage movie fans to watch some of his earlier films. I certainly envy anyone watching this for the first time. I’m sure I will return to Princess Moanna’s mystical realm again.
I suppose this is the point to any awards given out at the end of a year. If it spurs one to look the way they may not have noticed earlier, the fact that the wrong movie for a particular director is awarded might be irrelevant. After all, everyone knows The Courtship of Eddie’s Father is Vincent Minnelli’s best film. It’s certainly better than anything I have seen from Ron Howard in a while.
Pan’s Labyrinth is delightful. I do hope that it’s creator’s recent success opens the door for a possible sequel, or at least movies equally adventurous. There is much more to be discovered in his fertile mind.
To that end, I feel we’ve just about completed our mining this topic. With that, would it be premature to bid you a good day?
No good sir, your timing is as sound as your judgment. And a good day to you as well.
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