Friday, March 29, 2019

Pan's Labyrinth (2006)

El laberinto del fauno, Spain / Mexico / USA, 118 minutes
Director / writer: Guillermo del Toro
Photography: Guillermo Navarro
Music: Javier Navarrete
Editor: Bernat Vilaplana
Cast: Ivana Baquero, Maribel Verdu, Sergi Lopez, Alex Angulo, Ariadna Gil, Doug Jones

Pan's Labyrinth is a very different movie from The Spirit of the Beehive (which by coincidence I was writing about a few weeks ago) but the similarities are striking. Both focus on the perceptions and experience of a young girl, both involve fevered imagination states and possibly magic (or certainly "magic"), and both are set in Spain in the immediate aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, isolated in remote regions but with World War II still raging beyond the horizons. It's even possible to say that Pan's Labyrinth is equally preoccupied with the same two questions that haunt Beehive: Why did the monster kill the girl? Why did the people kill the monster?

But where Beehive is quiet and locates its motivating conflicts at the margins, Pan's Labyrinth is pulpy and rich with glittering special effects and showy clashes. They are both fairy tales, after a fashion, with raw brutalities. Another picture Pan's Labyrinth bears comparison with is Jean Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast, also comfortable with magic and inhumanity. In terms of the way it looks, however, the special effects puts Pan's Labyrinth more in the company of movies like Avatar, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars 23, Harry Potter, able to soar on its visual conceits even if you are never fooled that what you are looking at is anything but movie special effects. For that reason, perhaps, I usually end up a little underwhelmed by Pan's Labyrinth. Instead of fairies and a magical faun I tend to see a really impressive movie budget. Pan's Labyrinth rings with the dulcet tones of allocated capital. Some spoilers.

I don't really hold the big budget against Mexican director and writer Guillermo del Toro, even though it's a kind of nagging background problem I have with other movies I've seen by him. I never connected at all with Chronos—maybe I need to see it again. The more recent Shape of Water, as effective as it was, too often seemed to have an eye cocked toward the Academy Awards. I did love Pacific Rim, but for all its bravura it falls too rotely within the tight frame of the monster movie, Godzilla/King Kong division. Let's not forget how wooden Raymond Burr and crew were in 1956's Godzilla, King of the Monsters!, as across most of the franchise, a factor that is faithfully replicated in Pacific Rim.

But del Toro's poignant DVD introduction to Pan's Labyrinth speaks to the maddening difficulty of the ambitious project as such, as well as to his own dedication. No doubt James Cameron evinces a similar exhaustion when speaking of Avatar. It also gives me the impression Pan's Labyrinth is the one that matters most to del Toro. So I want to give it the benefit of the doubt. He's got a real live-wire villain in Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez), a Francoist military man heading up operations to liquidate lingering resistance fighters in the Guadarrama mountains of Spain. Not far into the movie we see his casual atrocity when he murders a young man stabbing him repeatedly with knife thrusts to the face. Del Toro has also got some admirable resistance fighters in the picture too, including the captain's own housekeeper Mercedes (a typically excellent Maribel Verdu). And it's a story that can stir profound reflexive sympathies.

The location in Spain is spectacular and the spooky garden estate is great too. Here is where 10-year-old Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) arrives with her mother Carmen (Ariadna Gil), the Captain's new wife. Carmen is in ill health from a pregnancy. Bringing the Captain's son to term may be the only thing keeping her alive. And it better be a son too. Carmen is a widow—her first husband, Ofelia's father, was the Captain's tailor. Presumably something in that story explains Carmen's pathological anxiety. In a standard fairy tale plot convention, Ofelia cannot accept her mother's second marriage or her stepfather. She refuses to call him her father, etc. She is also a voracious reader of fantasy, convinced there is magic in the world. Her experiences at the estate in the course of the movie will confirm it for her.

Del Toro is at pains to keep the magic ambiguous—these strange things we see may be actually happening, or Ofelia may only be imagining them. But there's also a sense that del Toro is shading it a little to favor the reality of the magic, if only as a matter of tone. I'm OK with that to a certain extent. I wish magic existed in this world too. Sometimes I think it does. But, again, I think there's some problem in the explicitness of the magic we see. It's just too obviously movie special effects for me. Ultimately, though it might be more austere and even in some cases disappointing, withholding the explicitness might be the better way to go. See Jacques Tourneur's Cat People for the obvious example. And, indeed, The Spirit of the Beehive is a good example too, which is part of what makes it an interesting match with Pan's Labyrinth.

As with Beehive, there are elements to Pan's Labyrinth that are over my head. The politics of Spain in the 1940s, to start, though I will say Pan's Labyrinth feels more reduced to the level of cartoon, or stark moral allegory drama. Also any connections to the literary strain of magic realism, with primary sources in Latino culture. I can see it's involved in del Toro's story but I don't know enough to speak to it. Much of the magical lore is beyond me too—in some interviews, for example, del Toro has made a point of distinguishing his magical faun (Doug Jones, after five hours in the makeup chair) from Pan, which is a distinction lost on me. But the visuals of Pan's Labyrinth are impressive. It's always a pleasure to look at. And its story is often stirring and terrible. If it still feels like empty calories it doesn't mean I didn't enjoy the popcorn.

1 comment:

  1. I tend to like del Toro's movies, and was a big fan of Pacific Rim. But I place Pan's Labyrinth at the top of most lists I might make. I've often thought I might be overrating it ... only saw it once, and I suspect a second viewing might lower it a bit in my eyes. Still loved it, though.