Saturday, October 13, 2012

Monsters and Mazes

When Pan's Labyrinth (2006, directed by Guillermo del Toro) was first in theaters, I remember thinking that I really needed to wait a while before writing about it. Here it is nearly six years later and I'm finally getting back to it. Waiting was probably wise. Pan's Labyrinth is a film that needed to sit in my consciousness for a while because my initial viewing of it was overwhelming. I was aware of the fact that it was a legitimately great movie, but I wasn't prepared to deal with it. I'm not sure I'm up to it even now.

The story finds ten year old Ofelia traveling into the Spanish wild with her mother to be with her new stepfather. Her stepfather is Captain Vidal, a commander in Franco's army. He is occupied with the extermination of the leftist resistance, which he pursues with the sociopathic zeal of a fascist true believer. He's a brutal man to whom torture and murder are casual tools of his trade. Ofelia's mother, Carmen, is pregnant with her brother. Vidal is insanely possessive of his unborn son. One gets the feeling that he views Carmen as a broodmare. He barely regards Ofelia at all. Ofelia, for her part, escapes into books, particularly fairy tales. Near Captain Vidal's headquarters is an old gate made of ageless stone, and beyond it is a labyrinth. One day, Ofelia follows a fairy into the labyrinth, where she meets a faun. The faun is ancient beyond measure. He tells Ofelia that she's the reincarnation of a fairy princess and that he must test her to make sure that she hasn't become too much a human being. He gives her three tasks to perform, but each task seems to make Ofelia's life harder. Her first task is to retrieve a gold key from the belly of a monstrous toad that lives beneath a blasted tree. Unfortunately, the process destroys the party dress her mother has made for her. Her second task is to retrieve a dagger from the lair of The Pale Man, a monster whose eyes are on the palms of his hands. Meanwhile, Ofelia's mother is suffering from her pregnancy and Ofelia's friends in the household, particularly the head servant, Mercedes, are covertly helping the resistance. The faun gives Ofelia a mandrake root to cure her mother, but when she is found administering it, the Captain burns it. Mercedes is caught as a spy, but before she can be interrogated, she wounds the Captain and escapes into the woods. Meanwhile, the faun gives Ofelia her third task: take her newborn brother into the labyrinth and offer innocent blood to open the labyrinth to gain passage into fairy. Things don't go exactly as planned.

To an extent, Pan's Labyrinth is the master key to Guillermo del Toro's cinema. He may never make another film as good, and shouldn't be expected to, I guess, but his other films are echoes of the faun's labyrinth in one degree or another, so like any self-respecting auteur, he's turned his career itself into one long overarching narrative that hinges on this film in particular. Like all self-respecting auteurs, del Toro has recurrent themes and images. The labyrinth has appeared elsewhere in del Toro's films (in Hellboy), as has the Spanish Civil War (in The Devil's Backbone), the beauty and horror of insects (Cronos, Mimic), the malice of fairies (Hellboy again), the humanity of monsters (pretty much all of his films) and an overarching examination of the uses of enchantment. In spite of the fact that Pan's Labyrinth lays out del Toro's career in microcosm, it doesn't feel much like most of his other films, save, perhaps, for The Devil's Backbone, to which this is a companion film. The film it reminds me of most is Victor Erice's The Spirit of the Beehive, with which it shares a certain acquaintance with very human horrors as viewed through the eyes of a very young girl. That might be putting too fine a point on things, though, because this is very much its own, singular film.

It's a mistake to think that this is a film that contrasts the "real" world with a fairy tale. That's simplistic and wrong. While the tasks the faun sets for Ofelia and the various creatures that populate the film seem drawn from the darkest European myths and legends, so too, is Captain Vidal. Vidal is the archetypal evil step-parent. It's a mistake, too, to mistake this for the kind of film that Terry Gilliam makes. Gilliam has always contrasted fantasy with dreary reality with an obvious preference for fantasy. Del Toro's worlds tend to bleed together. There is a suggestion at the end of the film that the past is all myth and fantasy. Just as the ghosts in The Devil's Backbone are trapped reenacting the horrors of war in that movie, so too are the characters in this film similarly trapped in a cycle that's only broken through the disobedience of its child heroine.

Children must disobey, the film seems to be saying, if human beings are to get over the sins of the past. Mere obedience--and del Toro associates obedience with fascism in both this film and in The Devil's Backbone--will only start the cycle again. This has a broader implication in its depiction of the leftist resistance. These people, too, are disobedient, and both Ofelia and the resistance seem to infuriate the fascist Vidal in equal measure. Significantly, Ofelia doesn't survive her disobedience. Vidal shoots her at the end of the movie. It's her brother who ultimately benefits from her acts. Del Toro finds virtue in this.

Visually, this is as richly imagined a film as any film ever made. Del Toro is a filmmaker who lives and breaths contemporary fantasy films, and he's channeled the experience he's gained from commercial fantasy into a kind of fabulist dream fugue, one whose images tap deep archetypes. This is a film that dearly loves its production design and contrives to make it meaningful in ways that it usually isn't in fantasy films. Take, for instance, Vidal's office, which is apparently the inside of a big clock. When we first see Vidal in this setting, he's fixing his pocket watch. Vidal himself is a cog in a larger clockwork that values precision at the expense of humanity. The trains in Vidal's world all run on time and the clocks are never fast or slow. The faun himself is a magnificent monster, part glam rock preener, part elder god. His face is marked with labyrinths of its own. Cinematographer Gillermo Navarro film's all of this with the attention to detail of a cameo painter and gives it a (very) slight sepia burnish, placing it in a half-remembered kind of past.

Lest any of this seem twee and quaint and ren-fairy, del Toro places some mind-shattering horrors in the film, in both of its realms. In this regard, Del Toro is an inheritor of the Grimms and Hans Christian Andersen. The girl with the red shoes cuts off her feet, the dwarves make the evil queen a pair of red hot iron shoes, and the stepsisters cut off their toes in order to fit into the glass slippers, so del Toro's toad is disgusting, his Pale Man is among the most terrifying of all movie monsters, and it's Ofelia's lifeblood that's shed in the end to open the labyrinth, though none of this is as monstrous as the historical nightmare of fascism that haunts Spain and the world even all these years later. This makes for a dark, dark film.

From a vantage point six years further on, Pan's Labyrinth seems more and more like the finest fantasy film of its generation, indeed one of the finest of all fantasy films. It's certainly among the best horror movies of the last decade, and that's not faint praise. The turn of the 21st century has been a golden age for horror, too, and this film is among horror and fantasy cinema's crown jewels.

Current tally: 10 film

First time viewings: 8

From Around the Web

Andreas at Pussy Goes Grrr looks at The Picture of Dorian Gray and finds it's ghastly painting a real shock.

Eric over at Expelled Grey Matter is rocking the challenge. His post today looks at the modern slasher flick, Kill Theory.

Dr. AC over at Horror 101 keeps up the pace (and the fundraising) with a couple of disappointing films. He's got summaries today.

Tim over at The Other Side is seduced by Jean Rollin's Fascination.

No comments: