Written and Directed by: Guillermo del Toro
I was inspired to finally watch Pan’s Labyrinth for two related reasons. Firstly, I was recently introduced to del Toro’s fascination with monsters, insects and fairy tales by a travelling exhibit of his at the Art Gallery of Ontario. Secondly, The Shape of Water recently won the Oscar for best picture and del Toro was named best director. I had mixed feelings about this result. I think del Toro deserved the directorial award due to the beautiful world he created. As a script, I felt The Shape of Water fell a bit short: it made it a tad too obvious who was good and who was evil, depriving it of a necessary dose of complexity.
Of course, one way to think of The Shape of Water’s simplicity is to understand it as a fable or a fairy tale, albeit one for a PG-13 audience. del Toro has a clear fascintion with merging the worlds of adults and children. In The Shape of Water, I feel this made the script come up a little short. In the case of Pan’s Labyrinth, however, this quality makes the film the modern classic that it is.
Pan’s Labyrinth opens much like an early Disney movie (the approach parodied in Shrek), in the pages of a book. The reader is Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), roughly ten years old, who is travelling with her mother to live at the home of her stepfather, Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez). The year is 1944 and Vidal is a pro-Franco Spanish officer. Ofelia is insistent that she does not accept him as her father, however, it is unclear if she has any understanding of his politics, and to what degree her loathing of him is simply motivated by her love for her true father. The film’s initial tension is quickly introduced, as Ofelia’s pregnant mother Carmen (Ariadna Gil) tells her she is too old for fairy tales. Ofelia is, unsurprisingly, not persuaded to give up her stories, and goes on a series of all-too-real fairy tale journeys all the while under the strict eyes of Vidal and her mother (who reluctantly enforces Vidal’s rules).
Ofelia’s refusal to outgrow fairy tales provides a direct connection between the text and its fairy-tale-loving writer. del Toro’s portrayal of Ofelia’s adventure proves that she is indeed not too old for fairy tales. His approach to doing this, however, is to depict a fairy tale that is not all that kid-friendly. Its major players include a giant toad, a child-eating monster with eyes on its hands, and most importantly, a faun (who, despite the English translation of the film’s title, is not actually the famed Pan). The faun (Doug Jones as the body and Pablo Adán as the voice) is a good character, but he has demonic eyes and is crushingly strict; he’s not exactly the kind of cuddly mentor you’d envision in a kid-friendly fairy tale.
Ofelia’s adventure in fairy tales runs parallel to that of Vidal’s maid, Mercedes (Maribel Verdú) who it turns out is a supporter of anti-Franco rebels. While Ofelia throws herself into the dangerous world of the child-eater, Mercedes makes herself vulnerable to Vidal’s cold, militaristic whims. Vidal’s way of being is characterized by his belief in patriarchal hierarchy, and willingness to brutalize all that get in his way. The co-existence of Ofelia and Mercedes’ horror stories make a number of a narrative points. On the one hand, their implicit connection adds a level of depth to Ofelia’s fairy tales, again sending the message that fairy tales cannot be dismissed as childish. On the other hand, since the parallel between Ofelia and Mercedes’ stories is limited (Ofelia’s magical foes are not blatantly allegorical to real life menaces) del Toro also sends the message that fairy tales can be compelling even if they do not have some meaningful connection to the real world. Finally, the combination of historical and fantastic drama in Pan’s Labyrinth speaks to the agency of children and the liberating effect of imagination. As much as we may like to think they are protected, children can get caught up in real world tragedies. While Ofelia is largely unable to participate or defend herself in the real world conflict, she is able to engage with it in her own way and with much more agency through her heroics in the world of fairy tales.
To get back to my original idea, there are undoubtedly parallels between Pan’s Labyrinth and The Shape of Water. Both star silenced protagonists Ofelia (who is too young to be political) and Eliza (who is mute). Both feature sidekicks who are also marginalized, though more able to speak to their conditions than the protagonists: Mercedes (a servant woman), and Zelda (an African-American woman and janitor). Both film’s also have blatantly bad antagonists, whose badness is characterized by their social conservatism. Finally, both films feature double agent doctors. While The Shape of Water’s (portrayed by Michael Stuhlbarg) doctor is a more developed character than the original, in all the other cases Pan’s Labyrinth’s characters come out just a little bit richer.
In the context their respective stories, Ofelia’s form of marginalization, thinking-like, dreaming-like and literally being a child makes her more vulnerable, and thus capable of more interesting interactions with her film’s terrors, than Eliza.
Mercedes, unlike Zelda, is not simply a sidekick but a secondary protagonist.
Most importantly, there is a subtle difference between Vidal and Strickland’s portrayal. Strickland is an outright caricature of right-wing badness: everything he says is cold and reactionary. Vidal, however, has just enough moments of vulnerability that rather than coming across as a caricature, he is in fact a portrayal of a certain terrifying, but real way of being. He is not devoid of love, as shown by his tenderness towards his son. Rather, he has simply become accustomed to a world in which all love shown by and towards him, is strictly filtered through the framework of traditionalist patriarchy.
That said, The Shape of Water and Pan’s Labyrinth are not the same film, and that difference is best demonstrated through their depictions of monsters (played by Doug Jones). In The Shape of Water, the monster is for all intents and purposes a misunderstood other: one to sympathize with. In Pan’s Labyrinth, we are still supposed to sympathize with some monsters (and certainly relative to the conventionally handsome true monster that is fascism), however, it is a more trying sympathy. We are challenged with the idea that for Ofelia the world of the faun is an escape from her horrible home life, despite the fact that the faun’s world is hardly a pleasant thing to escape to. In another scene (that I cannot describe without spoiling the movie), the faun behaves in a way reminiscent of God in an early biblical story. He gives Ofelia a horrible instruction presenting her with a painful moral conundrum and exposing the absurdity of having to live without safe moral authorities to turn to.
The god-like nature of the faun’s behaviour again contributes to the film’s overall affect of giving Ofelia choices not between a good and a bad situation, but between magical-fear and real-world horrors. Watching a child navigate this scenario is a shocking thing. Ivana Baquero’s performance is remarkable in that we never forget the injustice of what Ofelia has to face as a child, yet we simultaneously accept her as fully qualified hero. Guillermo del Toro may ultimately be remembered for his monsters, however, his writing and directing of fairy-tale loving Ofelia may in fact be his greatest accomplishment.