18 December 2006

El Laberinto del Fauno

Invited to a preview screening of El laberinto del Fauno (Pan’s Labyrinth) last month, I hesitated, believing it nothing more than a children’s film with a twist. Finding it was in Spanish, I set objections aside: discovering that it had received excellent reviews on the Rotten Tomatoes website, I became a little enthusiastic… and finally, upon realising Sergi Lopez was in the lead role, I foamed at the gash, snatched those tickets and arrived early in order to ensure perfect seats… failing to notice that there was not a single little kiddie to be seen. Let me quickly summarise the plot.

A little girl, Ofelia, whose mother remarries a violent and psychopathic Fascist general at the end of the Spanish Civil War, is brought to live in a remote forest, where republican refugees hide from the army. Also hidden in this forest, she discovers a magical world in which she can become a princess, provided that she passes three tests.

Having retreated into my own little fantasy world often enough as a child, thereby avoiding the unpleasantness happening around me, I assure you the even without seeing either Fawn or Labyrinth with my own eyes, this story was all perfectly plausible. With me so far? Good.

Now, having discovered that Mr P Bradshaw- Guardian film critic with whose opinion I have never ever before disagreed- was not quite so impressed by this film (click here) I had to ask myself a few soul-searching questions about why I was so enchanted by it.

On several important aspects we agree: I would go so far as to say that the acting was quite flawless, production seamless, and the imagery completely and wonderfully disturbing. Yet Mr P Bradshaw found El laberinto del Fauno to have “no overwhelming narrative drive or inner dramatic life.”

If you haven’t seen this wonderful film, please stop reading and go immediately… before I ruin it on you.

Warning: this won’t make any sense: spoilers throughout what follows

Personally, I found dramatic tension throughout El Labarintho del Fauno: I was riveted by the sadistic violence on display, desperate to see if it could all end well… which it couldn’t possibly, of course. One particular scene-where Sergi Lopez beats a man around the head with an alcohol bottle until his skull has been crushed- brought memories of my own Irish childhood flooding back. Many of the people at the screening squirmed on the edge of the seats and screamed aloud on more than one occasion. I confess that it was unsettling to feel such conflicting urges towards Mr Lopez; overflowing with hatred throughout the film, part of me wanted his character to die, another part of me wanted to hide underneath my seat… while an even larger part of me urged to invite him back to my place and start a long term relationship. (In the end, I’d probably opt to bring him back… and then kill him.)

What was Mr Bradshaw’s criticism, "no overwhelming narrative drive"? I felt that the three tests that the little girl faced provided all of the necessary structure, with a definite narrative progression both in terms of character and story. Allow me to illustrate.

At first, figures in the little girl’s fantasy world appear to be quite harmless, benevolent even, although Pan is no Mr Tumnus, is he? Before long, one shifted uncomfortably at the things that Ofelia was being asked to do. It wasn’t until she was given a strange root 'thing', resembling a mashed-up embryo, to hide in a basin of milk and keep alive under her pregnant mother’s bed, fed regularly with her own blood, that I realised why there weren’t any kiddies in the cinema. Along with this ever-darkening mood, the little girl’s character develops in quite well-demarcated stages, as dealt with below. Structured? Tightly enough for most viewers, I would have thought. Lacking in drama, or unsatisfying in the suggested correspondence between what happens in the real world and the fantasy world? Let’s look at this from both a personal and political perspective.

Ofelia’s first test requires courage, which she also demonstrates by facing up to the violent brutality of her step-father, the unpleasant reality around her, overcoming any cowardice or fear that she had shown before. Her second test requires her to be obedient and do what she is told, disregarding her own desires. She fails to suppress her own physical needs, for it simply can’t be done (a half-starved child faced with a banquet; who could?) For this failure to suppress herself, she is punished in the most cruel way: offered hope by the fantasy world, it appears to reject her, and she believes that she is left forever alone in a real world, living in a place where there is nothing but fear and lies, cast out eternally from the beauty she longs to escape into. She regrets her earlier decision.

All of which means that when facing her third test, which yet again requires obedience, she is inclined to do whatever she is told unquestioningly… but it is this choice that will determine her destiny. In effect, she has been tricked by the creatures of her own fantasy; instead of obeying, she must reject what she is told to do, and what she is inclined to do, in order to pass the test. If she submits to their expectations, she becomes no better than the tyrants of her own real world.

Personal odyssey aside, on a political level the film explores how individuals face up to their societal responsibilities. After each test, there are progressions in the little girl's story that show definite consequences and shifts in the real world around her. Following the first test, she is punished for her ruined dress (failure to look acceptable, failure to fulfil societal expectations at the dinner party), punished even by her own beloved mother. As part of the second test, she places 'the embryo' underneath her mother’s bed, doing something absolutely forbidden, something that she knows would disturb everyone in the household (her actions are contrary to the accepted belief-system, one could say) and if discovered she knows that it will result in a severe punishment. It is at this stage that Ofelia also discovers the housekeeper’s secret (helping the refugees- social deviants hiding in the hills) and because of her own secret, Ofelia appreciates the importance of concealing this.

What does this tell us about how her character develops? She is no longer conforming; she no longer submits to tyranny. She thinks for herself, she is risk-taking, she is self-sacrificing, she is demonstrating solidarity with the oppressed parent and the oppressed rebels. She is starting to forge her own path in life. For the third test, Ofelia faces her greatest challenge: her ultimate fear, her step-father. In order to do what is right, she is forced to deal with him, even if it means delivering her beloved infant brother to his care. In the end, by trusting a man prepared to kill her, she engages with a tyrannical society instead of running away from it; taking a stand as an individual, despite the inevitable sacrifices for herself.

Thre is much, much more than all of this to explore if you look at the Goya-esque imagery, the symbolism invoked in the film:
An insect… capable of transforming into a fairy.
A book that is constantly writing itself; a journey through life.
The pregnant mother and the new-born child… uncertainty, potential.

Symbolism more obvious still if you consider the tests. In the first, the incessant consumption of that hideously bloated frog-lizard can only be attacked by feeding it’s greed. In the second, the terrifying Pale Man who lives in a palace surrounded by images of what he desires most, to destroy innocence by devouring children. From his lair, there is no entrance or exit unless you make one for yourself. This blind monster sleeps until an allocated time and uses hands (action) to discover his victims. In the third test, a silver knife that can be used either to kill or to be killed, to sever yourself from the past, or let the past sever you from the future. Ofelia stands alone, deciding what to do on the edge of a great labyrinth; the future, the unknown…

There is also a more subtle symbolism in the use of night and day in particular scenes; in the use of water- the act of washing and bathing, that flowing stream that must be walked to the rebel’s hideout- and in fire, particularly the purging and destructive blaze at the end.

In short, gentle reader, I have never seen another film like it, and I probably never will. Sorry, Mr Peter Bradshaw- unlikely that you are reading (or anyone else, for that matter)- but for once I beg to differ with your opinion about a film… and one differs seriously indeed.


dazedblu* said...

i think this is great film!!
nice blog..

btw i wanted you to invite and cast your nominations for queer-eye bloggies 07 - details on my blog ;)

JoyZeeBoy said...

I love your blog and can't wait to see "Labyrinth" when they finally open it here in the states.

Now, just for fun, you've been "tagged" to do a blog on Six Weird Things about yourself. Drop by my blog at http:\\www.joyzeeboy.blogspot.com
today for details.

Ms C Qrisp said...

Dear dazedblu,
Gracious thanks for visiting my humble bloguette.

You are clearly a man of exquisite taste: El laberinto del Fauno is indeed a great film, and nice is among the adjectives used to describe my bloguette.

In any event, after receiving a comment with your kind words, count upon my enthusiastic participation in your proposed awards ceremony. Would you consider re-naming your awards 'Queer-eye blouggies' since I find that the word 'blog' is so heterosexual and commonplace, and encourage the general use of an alternative spelling among those of us who are fabulous?

Kind regards

Ms C Quisp

Ms C Qrisp said...

Dear joyzeeboy,
A comment- a reaction!- was enough to throw me into a fit of delirious joy, without using such an encouraging verb. Gracious thanks: I am thrilled to learn that you enjoy reading my humble bloguette.

As if I could refuse your invitation to play in the circumstances.

Since I consider that everyone else in the world is "weird" and that I am the only balanced and normal person in it, I do anticipate that your apparently simple task will prove to be a difficult one.

Please bear with me for a few days.

Kind regards

Ms C Quisp