Friday, October 25, 2013

Movie Analysis: Pan's Labyrinth

In some ways, Pan's Labyrinth really is very close to The Devil's Backbone (as I noted when I talked about that movie). It shows all of the strengths of a Del Toro movie, particularly the multiple and interesting side characters, each of whom has their own story. After watching these two films, I want to go back and watch Pacific Rim and see how he sketches in the minor characters there: the heavy metal Russians walking slowly away from a potential explosion, the Chinese basketball triad's subtle blend of competition and cooperation, etc. This is one reason why I love Del Toro movies: no one acts like they know they're a minor character.

But that multi-character split focus doesn't lead Del Toro into a morass of subplots and loose, baggy structure. ("Loose baggy" here is a reference to Henry James, who similarly has an interest in both depicting minor characters as full characters; and keeping the structure tight, no matter how loose his sentences are. Admit it: Henry James could have written some awesome Cthulhu stories.) For all that Del Toro throws several characters into the mix--the semi-orphan Ofelia, the rebellious house-keeper Mercedes, the Good Doctor (a character type he used before in Devil's Backbone), the violent Captain Vidal--he keeps their stories intertwining and advancing.

He also always keeps the story going back to Ofelia, our tragic protagonist. (How tragic? Her name is Ofelia! Has anyone in literature/movies ever had a happy story with that name?) And we can trace her story through a pretty traditional Campbellian hero's journey (though again, I like the slightly more abstract Dan Harmon version that avoids the fiddly bits of "Refusal of the Call"):

  1. You: Ofelia's ordinary world, the last gasp: her mother and fairy tales. This ordinary world is already compromised since she's surrounded by Franco's fascist Falangists and on her way to the fascist stronghold in the mountains. 
    1. Note the weirdness here: the fairy world is both a trace of her past life--her childhood--and part of the weirdness to come.
    2. Note also that the story begins in three parts: the fairy tale of the lost princess; an image of the dead girl (Ofelia); and Ofelia on the way to her new life. Ofelia's story may be a Hero's Journey, but Del Toro doesn't have to tell that story so linearly.
  2. Need: We already see some of the problems in Ofelia's world: her mom telling her to grow up (i.e., I cannot be your protective mother anymore) and the Captain's ticking watch.
    1. We could also see this as what Orson Scott Card calls a "Milieu" story: it begins with Ofelia entering the strange world of the fascists and can end only with her exit from that world.
      1. But note: Del Toro will let Ofelia exit that world only by dying and blowing up the Fascist world.
  3. Go: Ofelia passes two thresholds into two different magic worlds/underworlds: 
    1. the fascist-run mill where the Captain is the king (as he says later, there is "no one above me" here); here, the mothers are subordinate to the cruel father, who gives commands to both Carmen (mom) and Mercedes (caretaker)--which also shows what Captain Vidal thinks of women's worth;
    2. and the faun's labyrinth, which similarly casts him as a strange parental figure: there may be a king above the faun (just as there is Franco above Captain Vidal), but here the faun is the gatekeeper and land owner--this is, after all, his labyrinth.
    3. Note: as in Devil's Backbone, the fantasy element is creepy, but seems like an escape from the more awful real world of tyrannical adults and their betrayals.
  4. Search: You could argue that Ofelia's "searching" leads her to the faun, that he represents a classic mentor and ally. That's fair. So we can see how hard it may be to draw distinct lines between some of these stages. ("You" and "need" often overlap.) What's important is just that one follows the other: she enters the strange world and THEN she searches for what she needs. Here, what she needs is to fulfill three fairy tasks; the first of which is to save the land by killing the poison toad with a cure.
    1. As I said before, one way that Del Toro keeps us interested in the different worlds is to intertwine them, either with certain stakes and dread: here, Ofelia gets her dress dirty by fulfilling the fairy task, which puts her on the outs with her mom and her mom's new world.
    2. There's also the thematic connections: while Ofelia is feeding the poison toad the cure to "clean" the land, Captain Vidal is discussing "cleaning the land" from rebels; stealing (back) antibiotic cure from the rebels; and preparing to hand out ration cards to the villager. And the idea behind the ration cards (you can only get your food here from the Fascists) gets inverted in Ofelia's next fairy task, where she can't eat from the Pale Man's feast (you can only NOT get your food here). Cure and food and obedience are central issues to this section.
  5. Find: Phase Five is usually a moment of respite and also a moment where death is flirted with (in some form). And here we get mom's pregnancy being problematic and Ofelia being exiled from her mother's room to a dark room elsewhere. But we also get that moment of respite where Ofelia's biological but unsuccessful mother (Carmen) gets replaced by the more successful and rebellious mother-figure Mercedes, who sings her a lullaby.
    1. Here also we get Death averted: Ofelia finds a magic cure to help her mom (the mandrake root) and the Good Doctor goes to help the rebels. Now, the rebel Frenchie may be saved, but he'll lose his leg, which is a foreshadowing of the price to be paid.
    2. Note: Del Toro may be good as a storyteller, but he seems most comfortable with filmmaking, where he can make connections with words, images, or sounds. So here, Mercedes's lullaby has already been and will remain an important through-line in the music.
  6. Take: In Five, we find some possible cure; in Six, we pay some price. So in the magical world, Ofelia accidentally sacrifices a few fairies to escape the Pale Man; and the faun abandons her. In the real world, while the rebels make a good showing, the Captain's fascists kill and capture them. 
    1. This will lead to the torture of the stuttering rebel; 
    2. the exposure of the doctor as a rebel and his subsequent sacrifice--he dies after helping the tortured rebel to die; 
    3. and Carmen's pregnancy killing her after refuses to believe in Ofelia's magic (and after the good doctor is no longer around to help her)--which is implicitly a sacrifice of her life for her son's, as the Captain wanted.
  7. Return: Just as Three was the descent into the underworld, Seven is often the "magic flight" attempt to flee the underworld. So Mercedes attempts to flee with Ofelia, but they are recaptured in a great little scare. But this moment is also finally the break with that underworld order: Mercedes is no longer the caretaker for the Captain, she's an explicit prisoner and then also an attempted murderer. Which allows Mercedes to escape into the woods; and Ofelia gets another chance to escape--if she brings her half-brother to the faun's labyrinth.
  8. Change: Traditionally, the final climax can include a few standard tropes: the last gasp of the enemy (the Alien crawling aboard the escape pod); the protagonist putting into play the skills they learned previously (especially from Stage Four); and the protagonist's final stand and decisions. So what do we have here?
    1. The Captain from the mill-world follows Ofelia into the faun's labyrinth, his one last gasp to take his son from the rebels.
    2. Having poisoned the poison toad in Stage Four, Ofelia now poisons the Captain with the doctor's medicine. (Medicine is deadly poison to the already poisonous.)
    3. Given the choice to give up her brother's blood in order to reach the fairy kingdom, Ofelia reconsiders her obedience: no obedience is worth the pain of the innocent.

That's one way I would map out Pan's Labyrinth onto the traditional hero's journey. But as we see, even with that map, there are lots of issues that aren't dictated by this archetypal story. Does the little girl have to die? Does the Captain have to signal his disordered mind with the order of the watch? Do we have to have intercuts between different scenes? 

So we need some more granular analysis, not just this big picture hero's journey stuff.

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