[With Guillermo del Toro’s new movie Crimson Peak opening Friday, I decided to take a look back at the director’s filmography.]
Guillermo del Toro will be the first to tell you that he abhors post-modernism and meta-commentary. He has no choice but to wear his heart on his sleeve and bear his soul no matter the genre. While his Hollywood films are cloaked in explosive action and gory imagery, his Spanish-languish indies reveal a man fascinated with storytelling traditions. Cronos begins with a brief story to introduce the terrible fate of its eponymous device; The Devil’s Backbone questions the nature of the ghost story and what it means to be “haunted”; and Pan’s Labyrinth is a dark fairy tale trapped inside an even darker world.
While the Spanish Civil War served as a backdrop for The Devil’s Backbone (a movie del Toro considers to be a companion piece), it’s moved to the forefront of Pan’s Labyrinth along with the mythology building that del Toro adores. The divide between the real and the fantastical render the story stark and inescapable from both sides. In one world, you have Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), a young girl who has been uprooted from her home, her mother has married the evil Captain Vidal (Sergi López), and the only reprieve from the encroaching brutality of adulthood is to delve into a fairy tale where she is actually the reincarnation of a lost princess, who can return to her kingdom if she completes three tasks.
The other world belongs to Vidal, a man obsessed with his own fairy tale, one where he establishes a legacy of being not only a great leader, but also, a revered father to a son. In Vidal’s telling, it’s not enough to become a parent. It must be a masculine line; the continuation of modern day kings, which only serves to mask his daddy issues. Vidal is a sadist, a liar, and an all-around contemptible human who’s largely uninteresting because he works more as a representation of a craven, unforgiving world than a real person, but his need to be seen as a commanding father make him interesting and reveals the humanity in the monster.
Yet again, we return to this duality in del Toro’s work—monsters and men, and how each can be found in the other. Del Toro relishes the darkness of the fairy tale world he’s weaving, and while every adult knows that every child’s tale is already cloaked in darkness—creatures, eaten children, etc.—Pan’s Labyrinth finds horrific beauty in that darkness, which has always been the director’s specialty. He’s the one that gives a great big hug to the awful monsters, and it’s not out of naivety, but out of respect and a desire to understand where our world and the other one meet.
In Spain, 1944, they’re not too far apart, but they’ve become flipped in a bizarre way. We’re told that Ofelia was the reincarnation of a princess who didn’t just rule a kingdom, but the underworld. The movie begins with Ofelia’s death coming in reverse, as if we can undo time and protect innocence. The Pale Man (Doug Jones) may be more visually arresting, but del Toro only alludes to his evil deeds; we’re forced to witness Captain Vidal smash in an innocent man’s face with a bottle. There’s beauty in the darkness and darkness in what’s left of the scenic countryside.
How do you live in a world that’s unraveling? There are only two escape routes in Pan’s Labyrinth—imagination and death—and they become surprisingly entwined in the film’s culmination. Ofelia is on the front lines of a war she doesn’t completely understand, but, in the way that children can be intuitive, she knows she’s losing everything, and so she escapes to a world of her imagination, although del Toro posits that it could be real.
One of the many things I love about Pan’s Labyrinth is that everything with Ofelia could have “happened”, but it doesn’t really matter. It doesn’t matter if it’s only in her head, because what’s in her head guides her actions, so “what really happened” is almost irrelevant. If Ofelia believes a bug is a fairy, then fairies are real. This isn’t a movie about scientific veracity. It’s a movie where you find refuge even if it’s in dark, fantastical places.
Pan’s Labyrinth presents a fairy tale wrapped in folklore, and vice-versa, and the richness of del Toro’s knowledge is overwhelming. Part of his appeal is that he knows so much about this kind of ancient storytelling, and he uses it to color his movies. He knows the monsters, and he wants to introduce us, but while in Hellboy it was a friendly hello, Pan’s Labyrinth is a far darker meeting. There are shades and nuance to the world del Toro presents, and while his area of interest remains the same, his scope continue to expand.
That’s not to say that this is a mash-up of his previous movies, but rather, a new angle on how dark mythology provides both a benefit but also a caution to men, who are deeply flawed in their own way. It’s why the faun (Doug Jones) is a highly questionable character. He presents himself as a guide—the friendly rules of fairy tale and folklore—but Jones’ performance and the masterful character design tell us this is a character who can’t be trusted at face value. His kind has a reputation for being tricksters, and yet he also represents a distraction. Like fairy tales, he cannot be contained to one thing, and the same goes for how del Toro uses ancient stories in his films.
Del Toro understands the old gods as much as the new ones. Without Pan’s Labyrinth, his filmography would still show a welcome depth of knowledge, but his 2006 film a labor of love that let him put the pieces together in a distinct pattern, and one removed from comic books (the modern day mythology). While I’m sure del Toro’s critics welcomed a more “serious” picture, this is still clearly the man behind Hellboy and even Mimic (where he forged his cyan/amber color palette that plays a predominant role in all of his movies, but especially this one); he’s just playing a slightly different tune.
It’s still just as melancholy as his other work, and it still wrestles with what it means to be human by looking at monstrosities. Like Devil’s Backbone, it offers the brief comfort of an ordered universe that will mete out justice to the most evil among us, and like Hellboy, Mimic, and Blade II, it shows that there’s a big, vast world beyond our perception. It may not be a pretty world, but it’s rich and magical, and worthy of exploration.
“The world is a cruel place,” Mercedes (Maribel Verdú) says, and del Toro doesn’t seem to disagree. Even his escapism is foreboding, filled with twisted rules and harsh punishments, but at least in the dark world of his design there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. It’s just that the light only comes in times of dying. Even if the movie didn’t end with its opening scene, it would be a bittersweet picture, but one that leaves you shaken in the best way.
After walking through what remains his most acclaimed picture to date, del Toro decided to return to the world of Hellboy, but it would be as bold as any indie he had done and as lively as any studio picture.
Tomorrow: Hellboy II: The Golden Army