Tuesday, 9 January 2007

Pan's Labyrinth (El Laberinto del Fauno) (2006)

The movie critic, as he appears in every director's nightmare

Long before Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm got their grubby hands on Europe’s vast folklore and edited them into compendiums, the fairy tale was an altogether totally different creature. Granted they had a magical setting that often involved talking creatures, magical treasures and quests, but the original fairy tales were very disturbing affairs, with more scenes of violence and cruelty than would be allowed in a PG movie, intimations of darkness and danger, and sometimes even frank sexual references, and often no happy endings. Following their first edition, the Brothers Grimm succumbed to complaints by their foolish middle class readers that these elements were not suitable for children, and each subsequent edition of their Tales become more and more cleaned up. It’s a pity because these cleaned up versions would have had its original peasant kiddie audiences snorting in derision: “Where’s the blood? Where’s the part where Little Red Riding Hood was tricked by the wolf into eating her grandmother, you idiot!”

And this is how the infantilisation of children’s literature began. Sure, Tolkien may have stemmed the tide with his epic Lord of the Rings trilogy, but that hasn’t stopped the world from producing literature that only serves to coddle and baby children. Witness the Eragon, Narnia and the Harry Potter books and movies – it is hardly surprising that they’re all lightweight, witless, uncreative, patronising, gee-whiz kids entertainment. Yet Guillermo del Toro single-handedly resurrects the old fairy tale with Pan’s Labyrinth, offering a glimpse of just what we’re missing out when we make children’s stories too kiddie, even for kids.

Watching Pan’s Labyrinth, you will be reminded that before fairy tales got watered down, they used to unflinching yet poetically comment on society as it really existed, warts and all. Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) is a little girl reluctantly follows her heavily pregnant mother to the Spanish countryside, where her stepfather, a brutal captain in Fraco’s army, is stationed to mop up the last of the Republican resistance. Apparently he doesn’t quite care for wife or stepdaughter, but more for the satisfaction of methodically hunting down and breaking down the will of the resistance. Ofelia is quite devoted to her children’s books, and one doesn’t quite have the heart to blame her: the new house is reminiscent of a dungeon; the dinner company consists of devout, pious, and thoroughly hypocritical traditionalists and clergymen who fully support Franco’s fascists; and her position in her stepfather’s household seems to be that of a barely tolerated piece of furniture that came along with the new wife.

The director films his movie in an interesting manner: he doesn’t quite scream out the connection (if any) between Ofelia’s daydreams involving her exploits with magical creatures and the exploits of the resistance movement against her stepfather. Yes, I mentioned magical creatures. In her daydreams (or is it reality?), Ofelia is visited by a faun-like creature – a marvel of prosthetics and mime acting – who claims that as a reincarnated princess, she may press a claim to her fantastic realm, but only if she does a series of brave tasks (like stealing a key to a blind, faceless ogre’s treasure room). Her exploits take place parallel to the resistance of the remnants of the Republican army, who have infiltrated the captain’s household and must also perform a series of brave tasks (like stealing a key to the captain’s storeroom, where medical supplies are kept).

Because the dark and intense imagery of Ofelia’s fantasy sequences mirror the dark and intense imagery of the resistance army story, it is unclear if Ofelia has really retreated to her private world, or has internalised the horrors of what is happening around her into a fantastic setting, or whether her tale is an allegory of the resistance army’s story – or whether the resistance army’s story is in fact an allegory for her tale. What I like about this movie is del Toro’s strange reluctance to make the connections between the two tales clear, as if some things were just not meant to be made explicit. Consequently, there is a very magical and dark atmosphere that hangs in every scene, whether in Ofelia’s story or the story of the Republican resistance.

Like the original fairy tales, don’t expect a happy ending to either story. Instead, marvel at how the director replicates the old school bitter-sweet, emotionally drenching ending in the movie, and at how he achieves this through splendid visual imagery. Pan’s Labyrinth certainly deserves all its film award nominations, and is the true fantasy movie of 2006.

First published at incinemas on 11 January 2007

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