Pan’s Labyrinth (HUM425)

Heart of Summer

Here’s a rough commentary on Pan’s Labyrinth. If I were writing a paper, I’d consider it a first draft and look to re-draft twice. We’ll discuss PL in class on Tuesday and work on Kalpa Imperial. Come prepared.

Ofelia finds the stone eye of a statue, one that resembles a piece of ritual art or a totem. She places the eye into the statue’s empty socket. (The statue can now “see”.) A large insect (which O refers to as a fairy– is this a misrecognition?) immediately emerges from its mouth. (Is this a kind of speech? If so it is a material signifier, yet one that, at least in O’s eyes, can mutate.)

The fairy/bug signifies alterity, a fantasy world. We see it as grotesque, while to O it symbolizes fantasy/mystery/magic. This is the first instance, perhaps, of a disconnect between appearance and essence. That gap will be reformulated in the figures of the Captain (a father who is not a father) and the Faun (the threatening aspect of this creature misdirects our reading of him).

Is it significant that O is left-handed? How do we know that she is? What does left-handedness imply? Both literally and figuratively the left hand is not the “right” hand. In an earlier age, we have been led to believe, those born left-handed were trained and disciplined to use the proper hand– i.e., to conform. What this indicates about O is that she is out of synch with custom (the Law of the Captain as Father). Her spontaneous activity, favoring her left hand, is perceived by him to be deviant and thus subject to correction. The left hand may also imply the “wrong” or contrary pole of a duality between the real and the fantastic. O’s left-handedness signifies her relationship to the alter-world of fauns, monsters, and fairies.

This aspect of her behavior marks O as different, and that difference is compounded by her ability to navigate two spaces– the Real of Spain’s military dictatorship and the threshold of the fantasy world where she is meant to live according to her “true” identity as Princess Moanna. In order to fully cross that threshold she must complete three (a magical number) tasks that function as tests.

1. Obtain the golden key from the Toad that squats among the roots of a dying tree. (Cf. Mercedes’s acquisition and copying of the key to the storehouse.) The Faun gives O stones (gems?) to accomplish this task.

2. Use the key to acquire a dagger. In the process, she must resist the temptation of the food on the table (recall that in the “real” world there is rationing.)

3. Give the dagger to the Faun in order to allow him to complete the ritual.

In order to understand all that is required of her O must read the Book of Crossroads. (Cf. crossroads as a traditional site of the convergence of the spiritual and material worlds).

Task #1 is completed with relative ease. Crucially, O tells the Toad she is unafraid. She enters the subterranean enclosure underneath the tree, which can be read as a kind of false uterine space. Compare this scene with O’s storytelling. She places her head on her mother’s stomach and the image of Carmen’s womb/ the fetus is shown.

The Toad scene is intercut with the Captain on horseback in pursuit of guerrillas. The Capt. and O. are each engaged in their respective quests. Notably O’s success in obtaining the key results in the Toad disgorging its slimy contents, effectively causing it to vanish. All that is left is a glistening, bug-riddled mass. The Captain’s search for the guerrillas ends in failure. Immediately afterward the Capt./Carmen have dinner with the local Franco-ista elite. They toast “a new, clean Spain” even as O emerges smeared with mud from the foul den of the Toad.

This juxtaposition of image and dialog calls attention to the fact that counterpart of the fascist desire for cleanliness (a society purged of republican “vermin”) is an obscenity. Or, perhaps, that this will to to “cleanse” the social body by eradicating political difference, is visually confirmed as obscene, filthy.

What about the tree itself? Could it connote liberty as it does in the United States? Or is it simply a more general symbol of (socio-organic) life? Certainly the Toad, as a grotesque totem of greed and parasitism takes or impedes life like a tumor.

Note the logos on the official cars: bundled arrows, like fasces. (Fasces/feces?)

At this point in the narrative there seems to be a correspondence between the Faun and the Capt. (And what does it mean that O’s “real” father– who is not her real father?– was a tailor? How do we read this fact? That he is humble, a member of the popular classes? That in life he performed a modest, benign, and necessary function in distinction to the Capt., a character repeatedly marked as malign and excessive?)

Having obtained the key O is expected to discharge her next task but she is troubled by her mother’s failing health. The Faun gives her a kind of medicine, an animate mandrake root floating in fresh milk. According to the Faun the mandrake is a root that once dreamed it was a man. Is this why the root coos and squeals like a baby? This medicine is a form of homeopathic magic, evocative of folk-knowledge.

(What is Orujo? Why did I write this word down?)

Intercutting: the Faun’s medicine and the Dr.’s amputation of a wounded guerrilla’s gangrenous leg.

Why this particular medical procedure by the Dr.? The patient faces his treatment with courage and dignity. He understands that in order to survive he must absolutely undergo this radically invasive operation to remove the rotting flesh, the poison, from his body. In other words, a part of his body now threatens his body as a whole. Is this not a metaphor for fascist elements killing their own (social) body, the nation of Spain, and the necessary violence of stopping them? The fascist is one who has gone rotten and threatens the health of the whole.

Note that both sides– fascist and republican– shoot their prisoners. This is perhaps the film’s most honest moment. Such is the nature of civil war.

Play around with the distinction between revolutionary and reactionary violence. If nothing is worth killing or dying for is anything worth living for?

The Faun also gives O a piece of chalk that allows her to draw doors and thus move through solid obstacles. Why chalk? What does it connote? The school room? Impermanence?

The alter-space O enters is medieval, like the mise-en-scene of a fairy tale.

The sleeping monster seated at the head of the table. He must insert eyes into the palms of his hands in order to see (cf. Ofelia placing the stone eye in the socket). The functions proper to distinct parts of the body are collapsed. Grotesque, flaccid, flabby, pale, wrinkled.

In this scene there is an additional soundtrack element: a high-pitched whine that chafes the audience’s nerves. It is an alien, an inhuman, sound.

O surrenders to her appetite/desire for the grapes. It is a modest infringement of the “rules” stipulated by the Faun and potentially disastrous. In fact, two of the fairies are killed and devoured (note the visual rhyme with Goya’s Saturn Eating His Children).

Law itself, then, is not the object of the film’s critique. Rules imply discipline. Discipline is necessary when fighting monsters/fascists.

The Faun is angered, as he should be: two of his comrades are dead because O could not control herself. Fighting fascism is serious business. The Faun’s rage further erodes our trust in him. Increasingly, he seems to function as a fantasy-double of the Capt. (Note: doubling can include inversion, as in a mirror image, as well as resemblance, as in a copy). Yet ultimately O suffers no punishment or reprisal for her failure.

The final task: the Faun reveals that the dagger is to be used to spill the blood of an innocent. This task is truly a test for O, and of course the only way to pass this test is to refuse its terms. In other words, the third test teaches exactly the opposite lesson that the second test taught. Obey, but do not do so blindly. Adherence to the Law– in the form of discipline– should be the outcome of reflection, of understanding what is at stake and what constitutes right action.

O refuses to harm her half-brother. The Capt. has entered the labyrinth to recover his son and punish O.

He shoots her– a mortal wound. In retribution he is not only killed by the guerrillas but informed that his very paternity will be denied. His son will never hear the name of his father. This is an interruption of both patrilineal descent and patriarchy, and, crucially, a denial of patrimony in the form of the son’s knowledge of the name/character of his father. The guerrillas, led by Mercedes, O’s surrogate mother, not only frustrate the Capt.’s obsessive desire to be the father of a son, but, in erasing him as an origin of his son’s life, disallow the son’s possibility of understanding himself in relation to that origin. Symbolically, the violence is directed at both the Capt. and his innocent son.

This contradiction may be connected to the film’s point of closure and the ideological content that it represents. In death, O “returns” to her “real” life in the alter-world, thus effectively suggesting that that world has only subjective existence. Yet the most improbable aspect of the narrative lies in the fantasy of successful resistance against Franco’s military regime. In reality, the fascists won.

Additional things to consider:

Can PL accurately be called an allegory? Why/not?

The Capt.’s watch as an instrument that measures (orders or disciplines) time. Also, the giant cogs in the Capt.’s office.

The Capt.’s torture of the prisoner. In the end we’ll be “like brothers”– a further perversion of family relations.

The Capt. cuts his own throat– or, rather, cuts his mirror image’s throat.

Mercedes’s paring knife– a domestic tool and a revolutionary weapon.

The monster at the table apparently specializes in killing children according to the paintings on the walls.

Mercedes: “I believed in a lot of things that I don’t believe in now.” Nor can she remember the words to the lullaby.

Visuals: spiral staircase, spirals on the Faun’s forehead.


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