Saturday, January 27, 2007

Hi! Are you a fairy?

I fear that the Pale Man will be haunting my dreams for a long time to come. If you've seen the trailers for Pan's Labyrinth, you've seen the Pale Man, a faceless, contorted figure whose eyes rest in his hands like an extra from Beetlejuice. In Pan's Labyrinth, the Pale Man plays the role of the sleeping monster that Ofelia (Ivana Banquero), the film's preteen heroine, accidentally awakens. In his brief appearance, the Pale Man is both an effective summation of the film's real-life horrors (mindless violence triumphing over creativity, perception buried in the hands rather than the mind, and by extension, the heart) and a terrifying, visceral beast destined to burrow its way into our collective nightmares. And director Guillermo del Toro achieves a tricky balancing act throughout the film, creating a visually sumptuous fairy tale rooted in our very real need to escape into worlds of our own creation; the result is intellectually and emotionally exhilarating.

The labyrinth of the film is of the Borgesian sort, weaving between the objective world and an intricate fantasy world; while this conceit has been used in films from The Wizard of Oz to Brazil, here it is not only used to demonstrate the contrast between dreams and waking life but also something knottier. Set in 1944 Spain, the film joins Ofelia as she arrives with her pregnant mother Carmen (Ariadna Gil) at the secluded estate of her new stepfather, Captain Vidal (Sergi López), a cruel megalomaniac capable of unflinching violence. With her mother dangerously ill and violence between Vidal's men and republican guerillas erupting in the woods aroud her, Ofelia's unremittingly bleak existence is the perfect backstory for a fairy-tale heroine. So it makes a certain amount of sense when she is led by an insectlike fairy to a hedge maze on the periphery of the estate and introduced to a six-foot-tall faun (Doug Jones) who has a very specific purpose for her. This leads Ofelia into a series of journeys into another world, where she must solve an increasingly complicated puzzle even as reality becomes more and more unbearable. The brilliance of Pan's Labyrinth rests in the way that it subtly demonstrates how each world is altered by the other, with Ofelia acting as a literal door (Jungian alert!) between them. The horrors of the fantasy world are amplified by their connection to Ofelia's very real fear of annihilation; at the same time, Ofelia is empowered by her magical quest in a way that makes her stronger, more resourceful and better equipped to outwit her real-life wicked stepfather. Del Toro makes a very powerful argument for the importance of faith and imagination (dismissed as childish by Ofelia's mother) in confronting our everyday monsters. It's not only a convincing defense of the geeky Mexican's monster-filled body of work, it also announces del Toro as a fantasist of unshakable maturity and depth.

The art direction, makeup and visual effects departments do a breathtaking job of bringing various otherwordly haunts to life, adding details (such as the discarded shoes of the Pale Man's previous victims) that make each moment creepily believable. But while the real-life story usually suffers in films like these, here it's just as strong. Ofelia befriends Mercedes (Maribel Verdu), Vidal's maid, who admits that she once believed in the same stories but no longer can. Their scenes together are sweet and subtly sad, underscored by a longing for the return of innocence. Pan's Labyrinth is also the second recent film (after Children of Men) to suggest that a more feminine approach to life might not be a bad idea; while Vidal asserts his dominance through unspeakable cruelty and the guerillas, justified as they may be, ravage the countryside with destruction, it is the women who achieve something resembling peace. Banquero is amazing here, creating the most nuanced, sensitive performance by a child since Anna Paquin in The Piano. López is deeply disturbing as the methodical military man who becomes the face of a very modern form of evil - power in the absence of true vision. And Doug Jones deserves a great deal of credit both for the Pale Man and the faun, whose motives are uncertain as he guides Ofelia through the labyrinth.

For the first hour of Pan's Labyrinth, I was entranced but uncertain as to how del Toro would work the seemingly disparate elements of wide-eyed fantasy and brutal violence together. But as the narrative progresses, it reveals a fearful symmetry that builds to a stunning conclusion. The less said about Pan's Labyrinth and the secrets it contains, the better; suffice to say that if you choose to take its journey, it will likely shake you to your core. Del Toro has always been great for his infectious sense of unpretentious fun - hell, he even made a Blade movie that I actually liked. Pan's Labyrinth is an enormous sense forward in this sense; it's incredible, the way the film completely disarms you, leaving you totally immersed in its world. The result is something like wonder, and that's one thing of which we could always use more.

1 comment:

Jess said...

I am driving my car with my boner right now.