Pan's Labyrinth

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I never would have gone to see this film were it not for its split identity. Part of the story involves a little girl, Ofelia, who travels with her mother to a mill serving as the headquarters for a captain of the Spanish army just after the Spanish Civil War. The captain, a regimented, callous man, is the woman's new husband and father of her unborn son. While the woman rests in advance of giving birth, the captain seeks to locate and eliminate rebels hiding in the hills. This portion of the story certainly works, and even delivers some powerful scenes as we witness the captain's uncompromising brutality, but it treads fairly familiar ground-- the abusive military leader, the housekeeper sympathetic to the rebels and protective of the children, the doctor true to his oath first. If that was all there was to the film, it would merit little true notice.

Ofelia, however, is not an ordinary child. Her soul is that of a princess of a lost underground realm. Early in her journey she discovers a stone carving of an eye, and when she replaces that piece into the stone plinth from which it came she encounters a large stickbug-like insect that she calls a fairy. The fairy follows her to the mill and, in one of the truly magical moments of the film, visibly transforms itself to match Ofelia's notion of what a fairy really looks like. It leads her to an ancient labyrinth behind the mill, where she meets a satyr-like creature called a faun who informs Ofelia of who she really is and tells her she has a chance to return to her father's realm.

The fantasy sequences are inventive and vivid. The use of CGI is utterly transparent, with the fairies integrating seamlessly into the scene and never once feeling like a distraction. The faun was particularly well-done, possessing an ancient quality to his movement and voice that utterly sells the idea that he's been around for a very long time. While the fantasy storyline takes its cues from countless fairy tales, it feels fresh and new thanks to the art design, dark palette, and direction.

So is Ofelia really a princess, or is she just a girl with an active imagination? The film is agnostic on this question until the very end, when it seems to suggest an answer by showing a shot of Ofelia from the captain's point of view. That single shot completely ruined the effect of the film for me. Part of what makes the movie work is that, by consistently treating the fantastic elements as real but showing them only within the context of Ofelia's experience, the question of their reality is left to the judgment of the viewer. Did Ofelia really draw a doorway and sneak into the mill, or did she just find an unlocked door or hidden opening? We don't know. Did she really confront a giant frog, or just crawl around in the mud? We don't know. We can either believe or not. But at the end, the filmmakers seem to answer that key question for us, which trivializes the experience and removes much of the magic. Cut that one shot, and the audience leaves the film with no clear answer and must interpret for themselves.

With that one caveat, I was utterly captivated by Pan's Labyrinth. If anything, I would have liked to have seen Ofelia delve even deeper into the fantasy world so that we could see more delightful creatures and environments from the mind of writer/director Guillermo del Toro. Don't let the fact that this is a subtitled film keep you from the theater, but don't bring the kids-- this is not a Disney film.

21 Comments

I've never understood why movies went to all the trouble to set up these interesting ambiguous situations without leaving them ambiguous. I was fairly disappointed at the end of Contact and at the end of The Contender for similar reasons.

I would submit that the American culture is uneasy with ambiguities. Take superheroes for example, it's hard to think of any that don't follow the Do Good Always credo- it's a hard line that other cultures don't tend to prescribe to their heroes, icons or even gods.

I remember an Anime where panicked villagers approached a super powered hero, begging him to save their near-by village, his off-hand response was Why? What's it got to do with me? ... that blew me away.

I think you're missing the point a little - even if the fairy world was real the captain would never be able to see it. I don't believe that shot answered anything conclusively for me about whether she was making it up, delusional, or if it was real. No, I was more bothered by the very last shot of the film in the real world. But that too could be argued away by similar logic.

Nice comment Nate, just saw it- beautiful movie, thank ghawd some of these original imaginative movies slip under Hollywood's taint.

I agree with Nathan -- the shot in question tells us only that the Captain is unable to see Pan, it remains a question for the viewer to decide if Pan is real.

If you think about it from a filmmaking perspective, that makes no sense. If the fantasy is real, why would the filmmaker want to show us that the Captain can't see the faun? At that point in the story-- a climactic moment-- what does that tell us that we didn't already know? How does that advance the story or the characters? It doesn't. But if the fantasy is all in Ofelia's head, that moment is vastly more significant. I can't see why the director would include that shot in the film at all if not to answer the film's central unspoken question for the audience.

i think whether the fantasy world exists for the adults is irrelevant. that being said, i think you could easily defend both sides.

I'm not as convinced as you that we already know that the Captain *can't* see Pan. Certainly, we have our suspicions, but I think this is based mostly on our pre-conceived notion that children can see a fantasy world that adults cannot. (Such an notion is not especially novel, and so it's not surprising that we can immediately suspect it.) Limit ourselves to what the movie itself tells us, and the idea is more ambiguous. Until the climax of the film, no adult character is ever even in a position to observe the fantasy world. (Save the scene with the mandrake root.)

So, for me, the scene does make sense and does advance the story and characters. Prior to this scene all we know is that the Captain (all adults?) *doesn't* see Pan, but afterwards we know that he *can't* see Pan.

But that, in itself, tells us nothing, unless the implication is that Pan is not real. If Pan is real, showing us that the Captain can't see him (especially at that point in the film) doesn't give the audience deeper insight into anything. The only question that is of meaning to the audience is whether or not Pan-- and by extension, Ofelia's entire fantasy experience-- is real, not whether or not the Captain can see him. That's why I believe the director's intent was to show us that Pan is not real. The shot simply makes no directatorial sense otherwise.

The shot doesn't have to have a deeper insight to be included. It may be that it was included to be intentionally misleading - to temporarily jar the audience into thinking a definite answer is given. I'll agree that my immediate reaction was the same as yours here, Peter. But upon further reflection I realized that all it definitely told us is that the captain can't see Pan. Surely, you can see that there is value enough in that. It's completely reasonable to believe that the director wanted to mess with us one further time, to let us think we knew something that we didn't necessarily. Hell, the fact that we're discussing that shot at all means he did something right.

It's completely reasonable to believe that the director wanted to mess with us one further time

It is? If Pan is real, the director hasn't messed with us at all for the entire film-- he's been completely straight. If Pan is not real, he's been stylistically consistent in that the adults only see the mundane, while Ofelia sees the fantasy. This isn't a movie where the director is messing with the audience's head. In fact, he's remarkably honest throughout.

Next you'll tell me that Darth Vader isn't really Luke's father, and that the events in the most recent trilogy were just created to mess with our heads and jar (Jar-Jar?) us into THINKING that Vader is Luke's father.

For del Toro to mess with our heads in the final moments "just because", as a quirky shift in directing style from the rest of the film, defies Occam's Razor and confirms my interpretation.

To answer your probably rhetorical question, yes, it is completely reasonable to believe that the director was misdirecting us one last time. The director had just spent the previous 90% of the movie building up a careful balance between reality and fantasy. At some point the audience expects him pay that off; to tip his hat to which way he intended the world of the story to be. Your ludicrous Star Wars analogy aside, it is completely believable that he would include a feint like this to make us think something that might not be ultimately true. Not only is it believable that he would do this, but given what we know about the reveal it seems likely that he intentionally left the outcome vague. Why would he choose the coldest, meanest, least romantic character in the movie to "prove" that the fairies don't exist outside Ofelia's head? Is the captain a reliable eyewitness for us? If that was really the director's object in giving us his viewpoint, wouldn't he have been better served to have a more sympathetic character not see Pan? Or what about any of the multiple characters not far behind him? No, he chose the vile captain to give us our only glimpse of a world without Pan. The tagline of the film is "innocence has a power evil cannot imagine", after all.

Your saying that the film had been completely straight up to that point is incorrect, by the way. While the director/writer does not need to tell you in advance that what you see on the screen may not be what it seems, especially in a fantasy film, Del Toro has in fact done this. One need look no further than the fact that Ofelia's drawing a door in her room with "magic" chalk leads her to the captain's locked room. How can this be? If the fantasy world is in her head, then what appears on the screen is not completely straight (she must have snuck in a different way while the camera was looking away). Certainly if the film is 100% straight then we have to believe she has magic chalk. But if your belief that the the shot of the captain not seeing Pan eliminates the possiblity of the faery world being real, then magic chalk doesn't exist.

No, with everything that had gone on up to this point, I think we are meant to believe only briefly that faeries don't exist in that world, until we've thought about it further.

it is completely believable that he would include a feint like this to make us think something that might not be ultimately true

I might agree with this, if the incident in question occurred earlier in the movie. But it's at the climax. The time for feints is over-- this is the moment where we, the audience, want/need to know whether or not the fantasy is real.

As I remember it, we do not actually see through the Captain's eyes, but rather over his shoulder. We see both the Captain and Ofelia in frame. So the shot is not telling us that the Captain can't see Pan, but rather that an objective observer (the camera) cannot see him. Another decisive stroke for truth, justice, and Peter's Way.

As for the chalk... We see Pan hand Ofelia the chalk, and then we cut to inside the Captain's room where we eventually find Ofelia hiding. We never actually see Ofelia draw the chalk doorway to get into the Captain's room. I noticed this at the time, and recall wondering during that scene if the omission was intended to preserve the ambiguity of whether or not the fantasy was real. But by not showing Ofelia drawing the doorway, del Toro is playing straight with the audience in much the same way that The Sixth Sense plays fair. We're never shown anything in the fantasy world that contradicts the real, or vice versa. The possibility of a fantasy reality is teased and maintained, but not until that climactic shot does he finally come down on one side or another.

we see over the captain's shoulder, but pan could be out of the shot to the right. we don't see ofelia draw the door, but we do see her put the chalk on his desk.

again, i disagree with your assertion that, "we, the audience, want/need to know whether or not the fantasy is real". why do you want to know? why do you need to know?

Peter, I seem to recall you are a big fan of Calvin and Hobbes. Hobbes is not "real" in the objective scientific sense, but he is very real in the story. So what's the problem with Pan's Labyrinth?

If you really need to interpret PL as real in the objective sense, I think the movie actually left that open -- it could be the case that the faun is invisible to the captain, but HAD OFELIA CHOSEN DIFFERENTLY AT THE END, something that violates the laws of physics would have happened in the objective world, e.g. she got teleported out of there or whatever. I dont think the movie precludes that interpretation anyway, if you want it. But I dont need that resolved.

SPOILER ALERT

Out of curiosity, is the spot that reveals the ambiguity the part when the captain watches Ofelia arguing with the faun, or the closing shot of the flower blooming? Depending on the shot you refer to, the ambiguity is resolved in a different direction.

(The fantasy world could only be visible to Ofelia because the is the princess and the captain can't see the faun, so it doesn't necessarily determine anything.)

We don't need to see Ofelia draw the door. But we are shown that a door was drawn.

When the rebels, led by Mercedes, enters Ofelia's room to rescue her, Ofelia is already in the Labyrinth. Mercedes searches the room and finds a rectangle on the far side of the bed, drawn in chalk (meaning the bed is shown in the left side of the shot, with the door to the room being outside the frame to the exteme left).

This is not the door to the hall of the Pale Man, which is drawn on the near side of the bed (the bed is on the right side of the frame, the door to the room is again outside the frame to the extreme left).

So, this sets up the duality that we have throughout the whole movie again: a camera from Captain Vidal's perspective does not see Pan, but Mercedes does see the results of Ofelia using the tools of the fantasy realm.

Now the question is, does Vidal not see Pan because he is an adult, or the embodyment of rational thought, while Mercedes can also see the fantasy because she either experienced fantasy herself growing up (she understands Ofelia's talk of a faun) or because she represents an idealistic humanist adult (obviously contrasting Vidal throughout the film).

I saw Pan's Labyrinth last night and thanks to my rule of not reading movie reviews before I see a movie, my viewing was untainted by this thread. However, I recalled a review here, so I came back to see what was said, and found this lengthy discussion!

Here's my take on it and yes I'm joining Blog Readers Against Peter's Interpretation (BRAPI)... The fact that the captain didn't see the faun didn't shake my belief in his existence at all. There are plenty of in-story explanations that could explain why the Captain couldn't see the faun (only kids can see, only the Princess could see, only pure hearts can see, etc, etc).

I think there are also a number of reasons why the filmmaker would show the Captain not seeing the faun at this moment in the story. I find the "fake out" reason proposed above completely plausible, but I believe that wasn't the full intent. If the Captain had seen the faun, then everything would have gone completely different. As the Captain rounded the corner, I thought to myself "ok, now the faun is going to let him have it!" and then as soon as it showed Ofelia talking to no one, my heart dropped. Not because I felt like the faun didn't exist, but because it was clear that Ofelia was going to have to face the furious Captain alone. A little girl vs. a ruthless callous man in a secluded place with nobody around to help...

For me, the only ambiguity in the film was whether the throne room scene was real or a dying fantasy. From what was shown to me in the film, I choose to believe that all the rest of the magic and adventure that Ofelia experienced really did happen.

My thought is the whole film is really a fairy tale. In fairy tales, there is the ordinary world and then the supernatural part that only the few may have access to. So in the same vein, del Torre is telling us a fairy tale of the Spanish revolution. Once upon a time in Spain.... The story of the girl is really an allegory for liberty (or whatever). It has been killed by humans many times but always exists in spirit somewhere and will be reborn over and over again. So arguments over whether the faun really exists in the film or not are as immaterial as whether the Good Fairy really exists in a fairy tale. That's "Pan's Labyrinth" -at what level of the maze are you? Fairy tales defy our everyday perceptions of what could be real and del Torre has told us a great one.

Jim Lewis

THE CHALK?!

it came from the fantasy world but the captain picked it up

what does this mean?

A little late, but yeah...

I think that the chalk itself wasn't from the fantasy world. Ofelia, being the princess, has the ability to draw doors with ordinary chalk. At least...yeah, whatevs.

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