[Our first guest column! The ever-erudite Jennifer Stewart instructs us on how to read Guillermo Del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. Ms Stewart is a graduate student in the Rhetoric department at UC Berkeley. Recently, she was plain shocked by my flippant and hate-filled dismissal of the film and offered to write a defense for its virtues. Apparently this is the first written film analysis she has performed but she's a good reader, a good Rhetor, so, naturally, this is an excellent and generous reading. I still retain my stance against the film in spirit but cannot delve into it again without sounding off all ire and limbs flown. SO! If you're curious what the hell a Rhetoric major does, this is it: this is the real deal. Enjoy! (-RWK)]
I've tried to begin Pan's Labyrinth's apologia where the sting of your charge leaves it: namely, that its gory violence is voyeuristic, useless, and empty. This attack is a complicated one, I think. Without a principled objection to onscreen face pulverizing, then you must say what it is about the aesthetic and stylistic terms P'sL gives itself, such that its onscreen violence can't be justified (whereas it could, perhaps, in another film). Having said that, if you think such onscreen gore is never justified, then that's a moral highground which only ends the discussion. Instead, I assume that if I can provide an account of what the onscreen destruction of the rabbit hunter's face is doing, I'll have at least succeeded in providing what your indictment assumes is its lack of structural and thematic content. [What this kind of reading means for the status of a film being "good" or "bad" is - I find - a paralyzing question, but I'd welcome discussion from you less ataxic film buffs.]
What's interesting about this scene of horrific destruction is that although it is explicitly a spectacle (the characters in the scene are watching, too), the camera shows the pulverizing blows rather than reactions from the troops or the son's father (who let us not forget is also forced to see). Everyone is watching, but the camera is not interested in this pathos. The Captain delivers the first blow after the son declares, "If my father says he was hunting rabbits, then he was hunting rabbits." The camera initially shows us the calm, cool face of the Captain as he delivers the first couple blows, then the darkening face of the son as his nose and cheekbones yield to the force of the Captain's blunt will. What provokes the Captain is precisely the son's hubris, not at talking back to him, but at declaring his father's power to nominally shape the world: if he says he's a rabbit hunter, then he's a rabbit hunter. What the Captain won't tolerate is this tautological claim from a competing will. The whole film can be read as showing us character foils operating in a fundamentally mutable world - a world that does bend and yield to a shaping will, and the Captain knows this.
What's perverse is that the Captain is trying to impose the kind of will which hordes that shaping power for itself. When asked by the doctor how he can be sure his bride's unborn child is a son, the Captain replies "don't fuck with me." When his supper guests countenance his "need" to confront what remains of the rebellion, he corrects them by declaring he is there not by need but by choice, since:The war is over and we won. If we need to kill every one of these vermin to settle it, then we'll kill them all and that's that.
Technical military victory is insufficient to impose a Totalitarian order, so he must eradicate all those who do not act accordingly. The Captain is less a figure standing for the tyranny of uncritical obedience, so much as a figure who recognizes that the world can accommodate multiple interpretive claims, but attempts to collapse this by imposing a Totalitarian order. In other words, he is the figure who says, it doesn't matter what people believe, I will intervene and establish whatever order I want, imposing and sustaining it by sheer repetition: by insisting on rigid obedience to the mundane; a beaurocratized distribution of resources (Franco's daily bread, etc.), a hierarchy of manners (precise dress and punctuality; declaring his wife's caravan 15 minutes late on a multiple hour journey, and so on). Everything about the Captain involves absent repetition of routine (he rises, shaves, and dresses the same way every day, threatens his prisoners with the same speech, tortures them with the same instruments in the same order, etc.).
Yet his mistake is thinking an order can be established and maintained simply by instituted repetition. The problem is that this leaves too much room within those strict rules of daily life for free thought. You can run his household or stand in line for Franco's daily bread without obeying in your thoughts. Indeed, you can be dreaming about being a princess in an underworld. The Captain errs because he doesn't recognize what's undermining about this level of disobedience (he misses why it might matter that Mercedes ostensibly obeys him but is not loyal). It doesn't even matter to him, in the end, that he will die, as long as his son "knows what time his father died" - as long as his totalitarian influence remains as repetition (at the same time of day, etc) continually observed. Like all totalitarians, he errs precisely by not caring what people think, only that they obey.
The film fetishizes resistance to such a Totalitarian will, because revolution is what can be planned all the while looking like you are obeying. Mercedes and Ofelia represent this disobedient will because they share the ability to see and move through the "cracks" such a scopic regime leaves room for. Mercedes keeps the letters of the Revolutionary's correspondence in a hiding place purloined in the outlines of the floor tile, just as Ofelia reveals doorways by drawing their outlines with chalk.
More specifically, Ofelia can see through the outlines of this world, into the world described in her treasured books. Her second scene features the fragmented piece of stone statue she finds on the road and intuitively replaces - an act which in turn summons the flying stick-bug that Ofelia tells Mercedes is "a fairy." Of course later, this creature morphs itself when prompted to do so by Ofelia pointing to a profile in her book and declaring "this is a fairy." Unlike the Captain, Ofelia shapes the world by recognizing its ability to take on other forms. In short, Ofelia is the celebration of vision disobedient to the pretensions of one regime, and Pan (the Faun) is there to test her: although he ostensibly prescribes strict orders, the point is always to solicit a certain disobediance: What Ofelia's prophecy (to restore her spirit to the underworld kingdom) actually requires as its condition of fulfillment is resistance (it's Alice In Wonderland as Sophocles might have penned it). Pan's "Labyrinth" is precisely the bewildering complexity it would be to trying to satisfy conditions of fulfillment purloined in strict orders.
That said, the film de-centers Ofelia's fairytale story, for she and her unborn brother are really the parables of Mercedes and her adult brother leading the guerrilla force hiding in the forest. It is not her brother but Mercedes, after all, that the film positions as the true political revolutionary, since it is thanks to her guise of obedience that a revolution can be strategized and carried out in the first place. Just as Ofelia is comfortable occupying a world where one scopic regime can be penetrated by another (fairies and fawns appear, chalk can draw functioning doors, text appears in blank books), Mercedes is, too: by "finding" doors in the floor and she enables essential communication (not to mention medical supplies and other provisions) thanks to which the revolution continues to be possible. Mercedes is capable of the improvisation which takes place in the cracks and spaces opened up by an imposed rigid order (that of running the Captain's household just so). Ofelia's story is the mythic dramatization of how one learns, when one is gifted with the right visibility, to use those cracks and spaces (now it's Alice in Wonderland as Michel de Certeau might have penned it). Mercedes is the grown counterpart of this disobedient will.
In the end, Ofelia's blood is the triumph of the Captain's own conceit undoing him: he takes his son from her at the center of the Labyrinth, and shoots her in cold blood, right after Pan (once again) tests her ability to know when to disobey: she refuses to let Pan draw her infant brother's blood in the ritual which restores her as princess of the underworld by first sacrificing the blood "of the innocent." Ofelia instinctively refuses ("my brother stays with me"), and in apparently refusing to satisfy the conditions of prophecy, precisely meets them. The world is too mutable to insist on the strict interpretation of her brother's (an infant's) blood, since her innocent blood (thanks to the Captain) will do just fine. Except it is here, of course, that the film fetishizes disobedience, all echoed in the eulogy of Ofelia's mother: don't mistake the divine for its ostensible laws. What matters is the spirit who knows how to improvise an interpretation befitting the spaces and cracks. Precisely through the absence of strict law can innocence - an uncorrupted will - seek to act in a mutable world.
In conclusion, what happens when a corrupted, totalitarian will tries to act in this world? He must collapse it, and what better way to portray this than to show the Captain literally disfiguring a resisting countenance. The face - in some way the very metaphor of mutability - that declares the same power he wants to claim only for himself, is ruthlessly destroyed, and what matters in this scene is precisely to show the horrific violence it is (or so the film wants to say) to collapse mutability itself.
[Illustration by Arthur Rackham, from Wikipedia]