Pan’s Labyrinth

I’ve been wanting to write about Pan’s Labyrinth, one of my favourite films, for some time, but whenever I sit down to watch it, I find myself wondering what there is to say. Aside from how much I love the way it mixes wonderfully dark fantasy with convincing real-world drama, the sheer artistry of the film is sort of overwhelming — not just the quality of the filmmaking, the acting, and the storytelling, but the way so many of the strands of the story echo and resonate, so every character, every event, every location, acquires a deeper significance from the way it counterpoints other parts of the film. The whole thing works like a perfect piece of clockwork (an apt metaphor for the clockwork-loving Guillermo del Toro) — wonderful to watch, but difficult to write about without simply gushing.

Then I realised I had to write about not what I like most about the film, but what troubles me most about it.

I saw Pan’s Labyrinth at the cinema, and bought it as soon as it came out on DVD. (And, yes, once again on Blu-ray.) When I sat down to watch the DVD for the first time, I was shocked all over again by the opening scene, in which the young Ofelia lies dying at the centre of the Faun’s labyrinth. I’d somehow managed to forget this most troubling fact, that the film’s heroine dies, even though it’s underlined by happening at both the start and the end of the film, so it really ought to be unforgettable. In her BFI Film Classics book on Pan’s Labyrinth, Mar Diestro-Dópido says of this moment:

‘The shocking impact of this scene lies precisely in the sudden absence of magic; we see Ofelia as she really is, vulnerable and defenceless, a thirteen-year-old child incapable of inflicting harm — and a stark reminder of the hundreds of thousands of children who fall victim to adult wrongdoing, particularly during war.’

Every time I watch Pan’s Labyrinth, Ofelia’s death seems so monstrously unfair. Having passed through three fairy-tale trials, facing genuinely disturbing horrors with real courage and an ultimate fidelity to her conscience — trials which, in most fairy tales, would have granted her the right to the happily-ever-after rewards of selfhood and adulthood — everything’s taken away from her. One way of reading the fantastic elements of the film is as the dying Ofelia’s hasty weaving of a story around the bare few mundane facts of her too-short life, to try to make them meaningful, to make them all point, in a final, desperate act of imagination, to, yes, her really being a princess after all, and this not being a horrible and pointless death but some sort of wonderful fulfilment. Yet, the vision of herself being received by her father, mother, and (somehow, because he’s still alive in the real world) her baby brother, in this magical underworld kingdom, occurs in the moments before she dies, not after, so perhaps this is nothing more than the dying dream of a young girl, one more victim of a brutal, fascistic reality, where death and suffering are handed out as freely as Franco’s daily rations of bread.

But even if it is just a dying girl’s fantasy, there’s another way to look at the story told by Pan’s Labyrinth. The film is about staying true to one’s conscience in the face of a fascist brutality that demands instant, unquestioning obedience at all times. And it’s a wonderfully disobedient act to rework such a harsh reality into your own private narrative, weaving the spaces between the facts with a fairy tale of your own devising.

How else can so helpless an individual as Ofelia triumph in such a brutal world, except through an act of imagination? It’s a world that does its best to deny stories. Captain Vidal — like fascism itself — denies everyone their ability to tell, or enjoy, any stories but those the ruling party tell, criticising Ofelia’s mother for letting her daughter read fairytales, and, in the banquet scene, for telling the story of how she and Vidal came to be married. But Captain Vidal is in the grip of his own story. His father supposedly smashed his pocket-watch the moment before his death, so his son would know how a truly brave man dies, and though Vidal is constantly looking at that cracked watch, and tending its clockwork alone in his office, he denies his father ever had a watch — a denial which only goes to show the power the story has over him. Fittingly, at the end, when he tries to control the story his own baby son will be told about him, his quietly resistant housekeeper Mercedes tells him his son will never even know his name. This, in such a harsh, unfantastic world, is how victories are won: through acts of imagination. History may be written by the victor, but fairy tales can be acts of rebellion.

Near the beginning of the film, Ofelia tells her as-yet-unborn brother the story of a flower that confers immortality, but which nobody goes near because its thorns are poisonous. Her own fairy-tale tasks are designed to test whether she, Ofelia, has been in the mortal world too long and lost touch with her immortal self, the Princess Moanna. But ‘immortality’ in Pan’s Labyrinth isn’t of the literal, Woody Allen kind (‘I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work, I want to achieve it through not dying’). It’s closer to the pagan idea of living so heroic a life your name will be remembered, and your story told, even after your death.

Dying alone at the centre of a ruined labyrinth, Ofelia confers on herself a very deserved immortality, by telling herself her own story, with herself as the heroine. Whether the fantasy elements of the film really happened or not (and only Ofelia’s escape from the locked attic using the Faun’s chalk-doorway method seems to imply they did), the story she tells herself is true — a true image of her conscience and inner life, that is — and it’s this, her being true to herself despite the threat of death, that confers on her the Pan’s Labyrinth version of ‘immortality’ in the end.

After all, she gets a film made about her.

(And a very good one, too.)

Comments (6)

  1. Aonghus Fallon says:

    Absolutely. Also reckon that if – say – ‘Pan’s Laybrynth’ were a book, the subtext (that this is the fantasy of a dying child) would make it a lot harder to enjoy, but that maybe film is different? Film works on a visual level, and has a more immediate, visceral impact that often overwhelms *any* sort of subtext.* Which is just a long-winded way of saying I think (in this instance) the two aspects – the ostensible story and the darker, uglier subtext – complement one another. The other example that springs to mind is ‘Total Recall’.

    * also means a scriptwriter can get away with inconsistencies and loose ends that would be more apparent in a book.

  2. Murray Ewing says:

    I completely agree about film getting away with loose ends & inconsistencies because it is so visually-based. Big action films seem to being relying on this a lot more nowadays.

    I suddenly find myself wondering if I’ve seen all of Total Recall, because I can’t recall the ending, even though I know I’ve seen the beginning. (I looked up the plot on Wikipedia, and I’m still not sure if I’ve seen it or not…) I wonder if film, because it overwhelms you visually, makes it easier to create twist endings of that sort?

  3. Aonghus Fallon says:

    Yeah – like you say, you dazzled by the twist and miss the part of the film which don’t add up. Reading a book is a more leisurely affair, you have more time to ruminate and so spot plot holes.

    I think the programme Arnie chooses is ‘Blue Skies Over Mars’ – which is exactly how the film turns out. He finds some massive underground alien artefact and is able to re-oxygenate the entire planet. Verhoeven deliberately leaves you wondering if Arnie is still under or if this is really happening.

  4. Aonghus Fallon says:

    I guess the analogy I’m making with ‘Pan’s Labrinth’ is that you can choose how you wish to enjoy the film – you can take it literally (girl visits fairyland) or see the whole thing as a fantasy on her part. I’m not sure if you’d have that luxury with a book.

  5. Murray Ewing says:

    I suppose if a book of Pan’s Labyrinth were related by Ofelia in the first person, you could keep that ambiguity as to whether it was real or not — as with Turn of the Screw, say.

  6. Aonghus Fallon says:

    Very true. My experience of ‘Pan’s Labrinth’ was ambiguous in the sense that – on a cerebral level – I could accept that the whole thing was the invention of a child. On an emotional level, I still believed in this bizarre alternate world Del Toro had invented and the creatures that inhabited it because Del Toro had worked so hard to make them believable and they were right there on the screen. And I found this satisfying because I got to have it both ways – I got a rational explanation re what was going on, but part of me could still believe in Ofelia’s version of events.

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