Friday, October 23, 2009

El Laberinto del fauno (Pan's Labyrinth)

I had my suspicions about Guillermo del Toro, based solely on Cronos, admittedly, a semi-auspicious debut that indicated a purveyor of trash, albeit with some style, but which lacked the certain spark or extra dimension that seemed almost within reach. That's not quite the case with Pan's Labyrinth. Here we get plenty of extra dimensions, thematic and literal, but their simplistic representation creates clumsily stacked rather than intricately woven layers of meaning. First off is the harsh reality of civil war-torn Spain in 1935; then we are magically transported to a fairytale world of immortals whose king pines for his missing daughter; and moving between both, we have the point of view of 10 year-old Ofelia, who belongs fully to neither.

Ofelia is taken by her (pregnant) mother to the woodland camp of her new stepfather, a cruel Major in the Franco-ist army hunting down an elusive guerrilla platoon. She is led by a fairy insect into a charmingly overgrown labyrinth, at the centre of which is the portal to the fairytale land. There she is told by a fantastically fantastical faun that she is the reincarnation of the lost princess and that she must undergo three tasks to regain her immortality and be reunited with her father. Even without having already been told that Ofelia spends "too much" time engrossed in her fairy-tale books, the escape fantasy would be obvious; and although we are shown almost immediately, it takes sometime for her stepfather to reveal his cruelty to Ofelia - the escape into fantasyland, from her perspective, is less from her stepfather than from the idea of him.

The tasks she must undertake are unpleasant and frightening, as cruel as any fairytale should be, and imaginative in setting if not in substance (find a key, open a door, find a knife), and given the potential for dense allusion in a wider context and in the specific realities of the world above ground, they feel disappointingly thin. Plastically-speaking, the fantasy is superbly realised however, through make-up, design and effects. As well as the faun and his fairies, there are doors drawn from chalk, a giant toad in a perfect fairytale tree, a little Otik-style mandrake root and a hideous loose-skinned figure with eyeballs in the palms off his betaloned hands. This last is such a strong creation that we happily welcome its appearance without explanation, identification or context - a figure of a priori horror. Nice too to see it bite the head off a fairy, but that plays less like a black touch of nastiness than as a straight quote from Goya to provide a secondhand shortcut back to the horrors of war-torn reality.

And the war-torn reality itself is rather secondhand in the broadness of its strokes: the guerrillas' subplot is present simply to showcase stepfather's cruelty and to introduce a brother-sister relationship that goes nowhere; the mother is denied any character at all; and by the end the stepfather has been transformed by a grotesque wound into the cut-out cartoon character at which he hinted with his first, excessive outburst of violence. There's plenty of further portentous subtext, centering around his relationship with his dead father and his son, born during the course of the film, but little actual connection made with Ofelia's own father-relationships. These bits and pieces of standard business are not inappropriate to a fairytale, which is invariably composed of familiar elements, but they are trappings simply worn by the film, juxtaposed rather than integrated. This lack of an organic binding is most exposed when the faun comes to offer Ofelia the third task. He had promised never to return to her after she disobeyed him in her second mission, but the king apparently changed his mind and fortuitously for all extends her one more chance. Baldly presented facts and situations in a fairytale are readily acceptable as characteristic of a fantasy world (there's a dragon on a hill; there's a slipper made of glass - no need to know why or how) and the lack of psychology does not grate. But in this instance, the lack of explanation and transparency of character and situation fails to cohere and simply lays bare the creaky gears of the narrative. But those narrative wheels do stay in motion; as a dramatist, del Toro is sufficient, and as a fantasist superb, but as a creator of depth, complexity or genuine feeling he is lacking. No fairytale lays great claim to significance, but if correctly handled the inherent simplicity allows for all-the-greater resonance. Del Toro's' jumble of parts and dead-end parallels create the impression that resonance is simply being left to take care of itself, with the result that the fairytale is more childish than child-like.

d/sc Guillermo del Toro p Álvaro Agustín, Alfonso Cuarón, Bertha Navarro, Guillermo del Toro ph Guillermo Navarro ed Bernat Vilaplana pd Eugenio Caballero m Javier Navarrete cast Ivana Baquero, Sergi López, Maribel Verdú, Doug Jones, Ariadna Gil, Álex Angelo, Manolo Solo, César Vea, Roger Casamajor
(2006, Sp/Mex/USA, 119m)
posted by tom newth at

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