are fairy tales that are created to instill fear in
and there are fairy tales that are created
to instill hope and magic
in children. I like those.
I like the anarchic ones. I like the crazy
I think that all of them have a huge quotient of darkness
because the one thing that alchemy understands, and
fairy tale lore
understands, is that you need the vile
matter for magic to flourish.
del Toro, director Pan's Labyrinth
eat the food!" A simple request. But in war torn Spain
in the 40s with food as rare as violence was plentiful,
the lure is too great. Taking even the smallest pair of
grapes can have horrific consequences... Welcome to Guillermo
del Toro's superb Pan's Labyrinth.
the Hollywood system, even the biggest hitters (especially
the biggest hitters) are narrow-mindedly encouraged - by
those who stand to profit leech-like from their talent -
to do the same as or similar to what they've done before.
It's the hold syndrome on a one armed bandit's winning line.
Tom Cruise will never do ugly (Vanilla Sky
was not Tom doing ugly, trust me - in that movie he enjoys
relationships with both Cameron Diaz and Penelope Cruz,
ugly, schmugly), Tom Hanks will never do indecent (he'll
kill but never indecently) and Steven Spielberg - despite
his eclectic choice of projects in his autumn years - will
never shoot his own remake of Ai No Corrida.
His agent - if he had one and I believe he has despite his
lofty status - would be furious. But then there are those
film-makers who are scrupulously honest to themselves artistically
most of the time who brush against cinema's Vatican-like
mountain of excess. Hollywood and big buck budgets must
powerfully entice and for these film-makers' children's
and grandchildren's education's sake, they sometimes buckle.
worked on big budget movies, Guillermo del Toro understood
his friend's dilemma - fellow director Alfonso Cuaron -
when he was asked to direct the hugely budgeted Harry
Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Those Warner
execs are canny souls... Select a 'hip' director and you
get industry credibility, a franchise kick up the ass and
a reduced director's fee. Guillermo told Alfonso "Serve
the story..." It was good advice. The independents
soak in the budgetary freedoms and wastage and figure out
how to maintain the former and reduce the latter. The artists
soon realise that with practical ingenuity they can have
total creative control AND budget their projects in a reasonable
manner without the L.A. suits and overheads that would crush
those without spines of steel. As absurd as this sounds,
but del Toro's sumptuous and CGI riddled fantasy cost less
than £10 million... I know that sounds like a lot
of money (it is by any individual standards) but in film-making
terms, it's low budget, low expectation... Low, low, low...
You learn the way to budget properly from excess. The money
wasted on a $100 million movie would make Gordon Gecko blush.
Hell, the money wasted on a Hollywood behemoth would pay
for Pan's Labyrinth...
del Toro, once and conceivably again in the future, a Hollywood-working
outsider director, has gone back to his native Mexico to
make what everyone who can count considers his sixth and
some others consider his best movie. I'd consider it too
if I'd seen all of his oeuvre. But despite my del Toro Oeuvre
ignorance, (I've sampled Mimic, Blade
II and Hellboy) know this; Pan's
Labyrinth is a superb piece of work with real emotional
bite, a villain to hiss, a metaphorical conceit to dissect
and savour, religious allegory to gnaw at in frustration
and performances to cheer long after the curtain has closed.
It is both an intellectual treat and a visceral punch in
the solar plexus. I loved it. Can you tell?
June, 1944. That date should have resonance. If the Second
World War could be reduced to a three act screenplay format,
1944 was at the end of the second act, the point at which
the hero was at his/her lowest ebb... the time just before
he/she realises that he/she will actually triumph. In Spain,
the civil war was over at best and at worst fading out.
It was a country looking to the world to have order and
fairness thrust upon it. The world was pre-occupied. Spain
was ignored. The old and brutal order was struggling. Morality
in any war is moot. In war doing the right thing can be
disastrous. Going to war in the first place is bad enough.
But the civil guard captain, Vidal - the nominal husband
to the heroine's mother - can safely be described as a complete,
utter and absolute bastard. He has all the redeeming features
of Joseph Goebbels, the patience Basil exhibits towards
Manuel and an authoritarian cruelty in his acts of torture
and murder that seems to delight him. In fact, all he seems
to care about is the continuation of his name through his
son whom he protects at any cost.
'At any cost' is a cliché bandied about a lot these
days. Let me repeat it so you know I really do mean 'at
any cost'. The problem is that his pregnant wife is the
potential cost (his loathing of the vessel of his progeny
is barely concealed) as is his step-daughter Ofelia who
rightly detests him. The son - and Vidal has no way to know
it will be a son - is still in the womb. This all too human
monster dominates the film when he's on screen because he
is so unspeakably vile. I mean this guy cuts mirrors with
razors. Don't ask, but the resulting effect is to make you
sit with your hands prayer-like between your legs and a
face like a lemon grenade has just gone off in your mouth.
We take his bad guy nature on board right up front and wait
for a sign of just how nasty this guy can be. We do not
have to wait long. Two men are captured accused of being
part of the guerrilla resistance. They protest their innocence
but Vidal is dismissive. The men's story turns out to be
true but not before he horrifically kills the younger man
with the blunt end of a bottle (there were "Euw!"s
galore at the screening I attended as it is spectacularly
brutal) and leaves us in no doubt of his nature.
the key to the movie is its fantasy aspect (heavily emphasized
in the trailer that makes Pan's Labyrinth
look like Jim Henson's Labyrinth's younger
sister and not a gritty war movie with a fairy or two).
The trailer gives no hints at the awful brutality on offer
so that came as a shock but not an unwelcome one. If I may
pause to suggest that Quentin Tarantino is right when he
says that human beings enjoy cinematic violence. It's not
the actual enjoyment of the violence per se. It's the fact
that we are massively grateful it's not happening to us
and always intensely curious how other people deal with
violence against them. In Sin
City, the woman-eating fiend played by Elijah
Wood, is dismembered and eaten alive by his own wolves.
In fact, he didn't massively object even as the hulking
Marv cut his head off. It was the actual violence that startled,
the lengths to which Marv went to exact revenge. What was
wholly unsatisfying was the fact the victim didn't squeal
or even seem to suffer. This probably says a lot about me
so I'll shut up now.
unlucky and beleaguered mother of Ofelia (beautifully played
with not one false note by Ivana Baquero) in Pan's
Labyrinth is saved by magic wrought by the Pan
of the title (actually just a 'faun' hence the Spanish title
El Labertino Del Fauno). It's one of the
few times that her daughter's magic infringes upon the reality
of the war being waged by the civil guard. Both fantasy
and 'reality' aspects of the movie are held mostly in parallel
lines all throughout the movie. Yes, there is something
of a 'threads coming together' at the climax but mostly
both 'reality' and 'fantasy' are kept apart. Ofelia has
been sent with her mother to a garrison in the woods. Vidal
is adamant that his pregnant wife shall bear the child in
his presence and how she got pregnant by such a vicious
monster is beyond my comprehension. He shows as much warmth
towards her as a mongoose to a snake. I can only imagine
a union with a high ranking soldier would afford her and
Ofelia some protection. She got that about as wrong as any
human being could.
before arriving at the garrison, Ofelia spots a large flying
stick insect. It follows the car and introduces itself,
morphing into a fairy-like creature after seeing an illustration
in one of Ofelia's beloved fantasy books. As far as I am
aware, del Toro keeps the fantasies in Ofelia's mind only.
It's ambiguous as to their reality but in these circumstances,
Ofelia is better off being trapped in a room with a baby-eating
demon than present at the disintegration of both country
and family or 'the real world'. More of the demon in a while.
The fairy takes Ofelia to a small, dilapidated labyrinth
in which resides the faun, Pan. Superbly realised by make
up, performance (take a bow Doug Jones) and some artful
CG faun-feet, He tells of a legend that a young girl once
left the labyrinth and the King, her father, still awaits
her return. Pan asks Ofelia to perform tasks so that she
might be reunited with her father-King. Ofelia's real father
had already been killed. Each task is gross but enchanting,
full of horror and yet glorious to look at. You have to
take your hat off to an 11 year old girl watching a giant
frog vomit itself inside out. But the real shocker is that
pale skinned, no eyed character you've probably seen in
the trailer. Again, Doug Jones is in the make up and again
his impossibly thin legs are beautifully rendered CG creations.
This creature eats babies and tempted by a sumptuous feast
on his table, Ofelia breaks the rules and has two grapes.
What happens next is... see the film.
small rays of light in this dark movie are from two characters
that are actively serving the rebel forces when not dealing
with Vidal's upkeep. Mercedes, a touching and stone-hard
performance from Maribel Verdú, is the housekeeper
and surrogate mother to Ofelia. Her lover fights in the
forest against her master's men. She has one of the air
punching moments in the film, a violent moment that even
a pacifist would find cathartic. Let's say it involves a
lot of blood, a terrific piece of dialogue and the brief
empowerment of those held down by happenstance. The second
'spy' for the good guys is the doctor (Alex Angulo) who
sees his role to tend the sick and not just make sure Vidal's
baby makes it into this world. He has an 'Euw' moment but
it's a routine medical procedure. But in this situation,
getting plastered and biting on a piece of wood was considered
the war-makers' fortunes reverse, Vidal finds himself horribly
compromised. The left wingers surge forward as Pan awaits
Ofelia to complete her destiny. I found the climax moving
and the magic wonderfully real. This is a film-maker who
knows when and when not to trust people with mice. The CG
work in the movie is glorious. One small thing. Cinema,
images etc. The image that really made me go for this movie
was the penultimate image of the trailer (the shot just
before the title). It is a flash of white (right on the
big music crescendo) and a small girl steps inside what
I know now is a tree. You know how some images are just
the right images? The right camera placement and lens selection,
the right lighting, perfect movement etc. Well, take a look
at this shot. Even the angle of the girl's arms at the elbows
as she enters the tree is perfect. And the way she moves,
right foot forward. If I could explain exactly why I think
this is a glorious shot, I'd probably be able to read minds
or some such but I will say this; it so perfectly captured
the curiosity of childhood I almost barked with joy.
Labyrinth is an adult fantasy that is unflinching
in every aspect. It's also poetic and wondrous and nasty
in equal terms. That's a powerful combination. See it.