Saturday, December 30, 2006

Pan's Labyrinth

Pan's Labyrinth (2006): written and directed by Guillermo del Toro

Pan’s Labyrinth is a complicated film and all I’ll attempt here is to try to indicate some of the things that interested me in it when I saw it. It’s also a great film and a very dark one (look away now if you don’t like little girls getting injured by bad men): and it’s a film that was shown in about three UK cinemas and then for only about a day and a half, so this isn’t the most accessible of my travails; but fuck it, it’s the turn of the year and the only other thing I’ve seen recently is Eragon, and that’s so bad it actually lowers your IQ to watch it. I’d just exhort you, if you get the chance and you feel up to a load of Franco-era violence, to see this movie. But also be aware that, in the last para or so of what follows, I’m going to mention what happens at the end. I’ve put that bit in purple in case you forget – but don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Ofelia is a little girl taken, after her father’s death, to live with her pregnant mother and her stepfather somewhere in the wooded regions of Spain after Franco’s victory. So that’s one thing to love about it: you don’t get many evil stepfathers in fairy tales, and it seems to me there should be more of them. Her stepfather, Captain Vidal, commands a detachment of Franco’s troops keeping order in an apparently subdued local population. Ofelia, her mother increasingly ill in the last stages of pregnancy with the Captain’s son, is looked after more and more by Mercedes, a mysteriously beautiful, wise and unknowable housekeeper employed by the Captain at the mill where they all live and which he has sequestered as his HQ

On arrival in the woods, Ofelia is almost straight away drawn into the heart of an ancient labyrinth near the mill, where she meets an ancient faun. Apparently friendly, he tells Ofelia that she is the long lost daughter of the king of the underworld, and that to come into her inheritance as his princess she needs to complete three tasks. With her acceptance of these tasks begins Ofelia’s descent into darkness and violence: she struggles to complete the faun’s missions, to keep her mother and her baby brother alive and to evade the malignant machinations of her vicious stepfather; but as the anti Franco rebels draw nearer the mill and her mother’s health reaches a crisis, Ofelia simply can’t protect all the people she needs to, and especially not herself.

This is that rare thing: a story about the quest of the little girl. We know all about boys and wizards and swords; this is a film about the little girl’s quest to become a woman, or rather her decision about whether to accept that fate at all. Ofelia sees all too clearly what men do to women and what women become when they attain their biological inheritance. This is not as simple as becoming mothers; Mercedes, although maternal in a powerful way, has no children or partner.

I should be clear that this is not a film about women being victims and their lives thus being unlivable. Ofelia has a good deal of animosity towards men, and a fair chunk of that is repressed. As the death of Old Hamlet played out Hamlet’s hatred of his father, Ofelia too has fantasised her own father’s death and idealised him after the act. As for Hamlet, the stepfather provides a safe focus for the previously denied jealousy and resentment of the Father, who takes away the Mother; but for the little girl perhaps also turns the Mother into a love rival, so a double theft. So far, so Freudian; but Jung perhaps also reminds us of the wider, archetypal, associations of the Father. The Father (as opposed to the father, ie your own dad, who may or may not do this) can be the one who, rather than offering the protection of the Mother, insists on the introduction and eventually the initiation of the child into the world, with all its risks, ambiguities and difficulties. This began for Ofelia when her father died and the world became a more uncertain place; and whatever Captain Vidal’s psychotically cruel failings, he certainly shows Ofelia what kind of place the world can be, and causes her to find her own, more adult, resources in order to deal with it.

Hard to see this is a favour, though; for Ofelia, on the cusp of pubescence, men do not seem to offer much in the way of prospects. They die (her father); they steal her mother away, and they make her ill (Vidal), they kill her (her baby brother) and they spend the rest of the time creating a violent and divided society in which to try to live. They bring loss to women, loss of their autonomy, their control of their bodies and ultimately of their lives. To be a woman is to be in relationship with men and thus to know blood, fear, powerlessness, pain and death. To be an adult woman is to love those who hurt you, to sacrifice. This is enough, politically, to resonate with us; but for Jung this politically expression of divisions - within communities, between men and women, within families – is itself an archetypal articulation of the fear of union within the self. One of the ways in which he discussed the union of the elements of the Self is as an alchemical marriage. His description of this process, which results in the resolution and integration of unconscious contents and the birth of the individuated soul, is long and complicated and would take up far too much room here. But the useful thing is offers us in this context is a metaphor for the relationship between opposites in the psyche as the relationship between male and female. The alchemical metaphor also enables us to keep it in the family, as the king and queen in the alchemical marriage are brother and sister. Ofelia, in talking to her brother in the womb and trying to keep him alive, even though he is the product of a union between her mother and the hated Vidal, expresses her attempt to initiate the process of becoming fully herself.

One of the stages of the alchemical process is for the king and queen, having initially united, to descend to the underworld. Ofelia is therefore pursuing her quest to come into her kingdom with conscious and unconscious intentions. It’s not that the underworld provides an alternative to this awful reality: it’s dark, slimy, it is inhabited by terrifying (I mean it, really terrifying) monsters that want Ofelia dead. It’s not so different from the world above. But it offers her one thing life in the world cannot: the possibility of remaining a little girl, reunited with a ‘true’ father who mostly exists in the film only as an idea and who is buried at the darkest roots of her unconscious.

I’ve quacked on at length elsewhere about the feminine and woods and the unconscious, and of course an ancient labyrinth is also an ancient metaphor for the womb (Theseus and the minotaur being, among other things, a story about the fear of what a woman’s got inside her and where we came from). So no need for me to digress on Ofelia’s interest in returning to the womb (to the safety of being with her mother and her father, before she began to fantasise his death) but also an attempt to find the resources in herself to counter the life she is having to live. What’s interesting is that Ofelia doesn’t want to come back.

Ofelia’s quest, then is to be reunited with the Father, which means being a princess but also staying a little girl (she will not be the Queen). She is returning to a time when she was her father’s princess, when he had not left her and her mother unprotected. With him reinstated Ofelia can be a little girl again, no need to protect her mother and baby brother. It also returns her, in the language of psychoanalysis, to the time before the guilt at her own furious and jealous rage against him. It perhaps also has a spiritual dimension; Jung sets out an interesting case history to demonstrate the operation of archetypes in the unconscious, in which a woman patient, having brought a series of dreams about her father into analysis, realises that in fact they are dreams about God, in which God is being expressed through the figure of her personal father.

So let’s dwell for a sec on the idea of the Eternal Child. For Jung, the Puer Aeturnus was one of the most magical archetypal figures. The Puer represents the most miraculous, prodigious and transcendental possibilities of the human soul. Like the infant Christ the Puer connects the temporal with the eternal, representing the possibility of miraculous birth of new possibilities. People inhabited by the Puer are those annoying, delightful sorts who are apparently effortlessly good at things, charming and flakey as hell. They find it hard to accept the humdrum reality of life as she is generally lived, and drive those around them crazy with their rebellion against it, not least because the rest of us suspect that there’s a touch of arrogance underneath all that guileless sparkle.

Ofelia, in wanting to be reunited with God now instead of negotiating the grim, rocky path of time-trapped ordinary life, is expressing the refusal of the Eternal Child to have any truck with the trials if incarnation, life and death. The imminent arrival of a new brother turns this into a critical concern. Will the new brother take this role over from Ofelia? Juliet Mitchell’s absorbing book[1] about the significance sibling relationships for the development of the individual puts this movie in an interesting context. Among her arguments is that we understand ourselves as different in our relationship with our parents, and in particular the mother: she, through not only her sex but her generational difference, can give birth, and children cannot. But in comparison to our siblings, potential or actual, we realise that we are the same, replaceable; we are forced to view ourselves as one in a series. The brainy, resourceful Ofelia is her father’s little princess and her mother’s doughty defender. Usurped by the little prince, blood son of the new father, she will be made to turn into a woman, will be like her mother, not protected by her. In one sequence she opens her beloved book as, next door, her mother starts to miscarry. Blood spreads itself across the blank pages in the outline of a womb and ovaries and, horrified, Ofelia hears her mother begin to cry out in pain. No wonder Ofelia wants to stay a little girl, and her own kingdom in which to be hero.

Pan’s Labyrinth is, then, among many others things, the expression of a quest; but not for mastery in life, as usual. Ofelia, the eternal child, is a little girl refusing to grow up and choosing, ultimately, to accept death, not life. One of the richest and most moving of the film’s qualities is that, at the end, Ofelia dies; and we only believe that she lives on in the underworld if we believe that her trials and adventures with the faun have taken place outside of her imagination. If not she has simply committed suicide, in a refusal to accept reality over the power and purity of the life of the mind. Enthroned eternally under the earth with her father, mother and brother restored to life but kept safely distant atop dizzying thrones, she is the girl who refuses to take on womanhood, with its knowledge of darkness and violence.

Carl says: With the decline of alchemy the symbolical unity of spirit and matter fell apart, with the result that modern man finds himself uprooted and alienated in a de-souled world… It seems as though it were only through the experience of symbolic reality that man, vainly seeking his own ‘existence’ and making a philosophy out of it, can find his way back to a world in which he is no longer a stranger.

[1] Siblings, Juliet Mitchell (Polity: 2003).


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