Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Pan's Labyrinth

I saw the trailer and was entranced with the visuals – but then Mark Kermode’s Five Live podcast (around 9:50 in the stream) really motivated me to go. I was half listening, but vaguely gathered Mr Kermode’s extreme enthusiasm for this movie – in the same league as ‘Citizen Kane’blah blah blah.

I actually tend to agree. The genius of the film is its extreme ambiguity: we never really know for sure if the fantasy is ‘real’ or just a child’s fantasy – and even within the fantasy Pan is a deeply dubious moral figure. The fantasy can be read as the child’s psychological attempt to cope with the reality of her situation: but the movie shows, over and over again, all the adult characters telling, believing, living their lives by stories – ultimately, Fascism itself is a kind of story being imposed on Spanish reality. Reality keeps biting back, for all the characters, creating narrative challenges which are then incorporated in yet more narrative. Narrative is a force of nature for us – we can’t do without it, and yet what we believe leads us to destruction.

Right at the beginning the heroine Ofelia’s weak and sickly pregnant mother derides the child’s continuing belief in fairytales yet tries to force a new story on the girl – asking her to call the Captain ‘father’ – “it’s just a word” she says. Big error.

The evil stepfather Captain totally identifies with his own father’s ‘hero’ story and one sees his skill in manipulating narrative – in the torture scene in particular, where he excrutiatingly plays on the victim’s and viewers' imaginations, making the scene virtually unwatchable, even though the actual violence is far less graphic than elsewhere in the film. The most vital thing in the Captain's life is that his own story will be passed safely on to his son - even at the expense of the baby's mother's health.

The movie is about narrative and humanity’s slavery to narrative; about our use of narrative to control or explain or justify our moral choices. Guillermo del Toro shows narrative to be a powerful yet amoral fact of human existence. What moral salvation there can be for us is predicated on an attempt to escape the rote demands of following the narrative; by questioning the narrative that imprisons us.

Criticism that the film does not adequately integrate the two narrative streams does not recognise the major thematic links between the two halves, or the extent to which the film is a meta-narrative, unaligned to either genre but instead utilising both. And to be absolutely fair, the editing links between reality and fantasy are amongst the most bravura and extraordinary I have ever seen.

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