Below is an essay I wrote while enrolled at Emily Carr University analyzing one of my favourite films, Pan’s Labyrinth.
MHIS: Reading the Screen
November 12, 2007
Dramatic Costuming and Acting
Heighten the Story in Pan’s Labyrinth
Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) is a stunning film which not only contributes originality to the genre of fantasy but also uses dramatic and memorable imagery to convey its story. In the history of cinema, fairytale movies have been traditionally light in terms of portraying characters as overtly frightening or violent. Viewers used to these conventions of the genre will find the use of horrifying imagery in this film shocking. However, traditional fables and legends told to children in the past few centuries have been not been so sanitized. Their purpose was to instill caution and fear into children to prevent them from potential harm. For example, some tales would depict lake monsters that would grab and pull children into the depths and devour them. This was to keep children from carelessly playing around the water and drowning. Tales of forest monsters and witches, such as the well known fable Hansel and Gretel, were told to keep children from straying too far into the forest to potentially get lost or even killed by a wild animal.
A prevalent theme throughout this film is the constant interspersion of the real world and the fantasy. The filmmaker, Guillermo del Toro, juxtaposes scenes of the horrific reality of his character Ofelia’s new surroundings with the equally as frightening scenes of fantasy. This leads the audience to question if the fantasy world is real or not. We may ponder, is the world simply manifested in Sophia’s mind to cope with her mother’s condition and her new stepfather’s cruelty? Or is she indeed a princess, who at the end finds safety and happiness in her kingdom? In an attempt to reveal these answers, a couple of memorable scenes in Pan’s Labyrinth can be analyzed in terms of the arresting costuming design and acting.
The first scene of analysis is one where Ofelia sets out on her mission to obtain the knife in the Pale Man’s den. Dressed in pajamas, a sleeping robe and slippers with her short girlish wavy hair set back in clips, she embodies the innocence of youth. Yet we wonder if what she is wearing in this scene signifies that she is dreaming of the event. With an expression of quiet determination that contrasts her previous shy nature, she wanders through the tunnel towards the frightening monster. The cool green tone of Ofelia’s outfit sets her apart from the scene and the Pale Man. A motif throughout the film, the fantasy world mainly consists of a warm colour palette (Toro).
Surprisingly, she first looks at him not out of fear but with an expression of curiosity as she examine s his eyeballs on the platter, the explicit mural on the wall detailing his nature and the pile of shoes of the deceased. While she is searching for the knife, the Pale Man continues to sits there in the background, inert. This lack of movement increases the tension and suspense of the scene. After Ofelia inevitably is tempted to eat a fruit from the banquet table, either because she is enchanted or simply very hungry, the Pale Man starts to move. He does so in small, jerky movements, originating from his hands, moving to his head and finally to his body as he gasps for air to display his reanimation. By the time he finally inserts his eyeballs into his hands, stands up, and raises them to his head, we become increasingly uneasy at the danger this poses to Ofelia as she is looking the other way and unaware of the developing situation.
Standing, the terrifying and stunning costume becomes completely visible. Animatronics company DDT Efectos Especiales created arguably the most unforgettable character of the film due to its originality in design and skilled execution. Here the actor’s choice of an unnatural asymmetrical stance and sporadic movements reinforce the otherworldly nature of the creature. Emphasizing this inhuman feeling is the use of green screen panels to facilitate removing a mass of his legs which otherwise seems necessary for his ability to walk (Jones). Witnessing the horror of the fairies’ demise, Ofelia’s expression changes to that of terror as she runs towards the exit only to discover it is too late. To contrast this and again heighten the suspense, the Pale Man’s advancement is unbearably slow and steady as Ofelia nervously fumbles with her chalk. Timed perfectly up until the last moment, the audience is unsure if Ofelia will even escape with her life in this most ill-fated of circumstances.
The second scene of interest is when Captain Vidal manages to perform stitching to his own face. Sweat pouring down his brow and grimacing in reaction to the penetration of the needle, we can almost feel Vidal’s pain. He again contorts his face to the sting of the alcohol, but this does not deter him in pouring another cup. This unsettling scene paints Vidal as an unstoppable and masochistic villain, similar to the Pale Man in that regard. The costume, before extremely neat, ironed and buttoned, is now shabbily worn open with stains of blood and dirt. His movements are calculated and mechanical bordering on obsessive, as he methodically goes about his task. Noticing every little detail, he spots the chalk and picks up his gun to ready himself against an intruder. His expression changes to that of confusion and worry.
In relation to the previous scene, Ofelia is again situated in a location of extreme peril if she is discovered to be trespassing. Speaking is set to a minimum in both scenes so the expressive acting styles of these two characters are highlighted and made more important. This is the scene in which the most obvious clue is left to answer the question about the validity of the fantasy world. The improbability of Ofelia being able to escape from a locked and guarded attic room leads the audience to conclude she used the chalk to build another door. Finally, Vidal’s recognition of this item, which was given to Ofelia by the Faun, adds evidence to the mystery. A subtle detail, when illuminated, helps the pieces to fall together.
Pan’s Labyrinth neither concludes with another concrete example of the fantasy world existing, nor shows anyone besides Ofelia knowing of its existence. By the way Toro does not spell out the answer so clearly, he leaves it open-ended for us to form our own conclusions. We may ask ourselves, how much does it matter whether or not it is real? Would the story be more or less powerful either way? The ending is what we make of it. Non-believers can be satisfied with the film just ending with the brutal one-dimensional villain Vidal is set to justice. Others, who believe in the fantasy world are comforted by the fact that she reaches a state of joy after passing on and is rewarded for sacrificing herself for her brother.
Jones, Doug. Commentary: BEHIND THE SCENES GALLERY: The Pale Man. Picturehouse, 1985. <www.panslabyrinth.com>
Pan’s Labyrinth. Director’s Commentary: Guillermo del Toro. Picturehouse, 2006.
Pan’s Labyrinth. Writ. / Dir. : —. Picturehouse, 2006.
Final Note: I just discovered an interesting site analyzing the mythology and symbolism used in the movie in-depth is a post at Vigilant Citizen: http://vigilantcitizen.com/?p=5019