By Richard Fish, Ph.D.
In considering this complex and multilayered film, I think it best to focus on the overriding reason that Guillermo Del Toro made this film (due to budget problems he even gave up his director’s fee to get it made). On the DVD, Del Toro comments extensively on the technical and thematic aspects of the film. He explains that he wanted to illustrate a particularly tender moment in life.
To quote Del Toro:
…it is that moment in which we put away our toys; we put away our fairy tales; we put away our souls and become just another adult. That crossroads we all go through, the moment of loss of childhood, is a profoundly melancholy moment in all of our lives.
This is a decidedly bleak view of adulthood. But from his commentary on the movie, it is clear that Del Toro intended his film to illustrate spiritual transcendence over the emptiness and cruelty of adult life. He says that immortality and magic are real in the spiritual sense. The central theme of the movie is contained in the story of a rose. There is a rose that grows on a mountain giving immortality to those who dare to pluck it. In order to pluck it one has to go through a forest full of deadly thorns. In this view, the ordeal of the protagonist, Ofelia, demonstrates a path to transcendence. If she is brave and true-- if she can face death with acceptance-- she can become truly immortal. The fairies and monsters aren’t just Ofelia’s fantasies. They are quite real and begin to affect events in the real world.
I will set aside the spiritual theme because, in my view, matters of the spirit are not the purview of psychoanalysis (Freud’s comments on religion as purely magical thinking notwithstanding). From a psychoanalytic point of view, our task is not spiritual transcendence but integration of the demands of adult reality and the press of our instinctual selves. This film has a lot to say about the difficulty in transitioning to adult life, especially in a place where the world of adults is so terrifying. As children transition to adulthood, they must relinquish childhood ways. However, adulthood is not barren and devoid of childhood pleasures. Such pleasures are alive in the world of the unconscious. The delightful aspects of this world are available to us through intimacy, sexuality, dreams, play, fantasy, and works of art such as the one Del Toro has given us. He has composed a compelling film that illustrates the counterpoint of the delicate, tender sexual awakening of this little girl in the midst of the most violent sadistic human cruelty, her entry into adulthood in the midst of the worst adulthood has to offer – the loss of her father, her home, civility and the social order. Ofelia is a precocious girl at a crucial crossroads of life.
In "Pan’s Labyrinth," Del Toro presents this life moment in a traditional way, as a fairy tale. But this is a fairy tale with a twist or two. In most traditional fairy tales, an obedient and mostly passive female is rescued from some distress by a male and ushered into adult sexuality by him. She then lives happily in union with him sans mother and father. This theme is most obvious in the tales of Little Red Riding Hood, Sleeping Beauty, and Cinderella. In contrast, Ofelia is a more modern girl. She is aggressive and resourceful, and she must struggle with these developmental issues alone with her fantasies.
She is coping with typical early adolescent issues: her body is awakening; she is filled with desire; and her fantasy life is animated. Her relationship with adults is in a state of flux. She is trying to separate from her mother and is disgusted by some of her ways, yet she remains childishly dependent. This normal developmental step is occurring under the most extreme circumstances. In order to develop a mature, non-conflicted adult female identity, a girl must separate from but also identify with her mother or another important female. What are Ofelia’s choices here? She has a mother who, in a desperate bid for survival, has sold her own soul to the devil. In her efforts to conform she admonishes Ofelia to do the same. Mercedes is a better role model. She doesn’t surrender to despair but must live a very dangerous life under the thumb of a sadistic man. If she is cunning enough she may be reunited with her prince in the forest. Still, neither the passive nor the active identification is safe.
Ofelia is also struggling to consolidate her body image. This is represented creatively in the movie by three enclosures: the tree she enters to slay the toad, the dining hall where she meets the pale man, and by the labyrinth itself. These are places of mystery, awe, and danger.
Many psychoanalytic theorists propose that girls, due to the internal nature of their sexual organs, are filled with more of a sense of mystery and discovery about their bodies and their sexuality during puberty than are boys, for whom things are more external and straightforward. I believe this idea is nicely portrayed in Ofelia’s fantasy world. For a girl living in her circumstances, it is not surprising that these fantasies are so disturbing.
We can look at the three terrifying tasks assigned to Ofelia as metaphors for sexual development. It is interesting to note that each one requires her to resist her urges in order to remain a true and chaste girl. She pursues these tasks not as a way of exploring and attaining adult sexuality but as a way to reunite with her father and mother in a state of perpetual childhood. This is not a surprising wish given that she grieves for her real lost father and the realities of the real adult world are grim. Men are sadistic and women can either submit to abuse or face grave danger.
In task one she approaches a tree clad in a dress that Del Toro intends as a reference to Alice in Wonderland. Alice is another pubescent girl trying to manage her growth and development. In Alice in Wonderland, the adult world is represented by absurd, ridiculous, hypocritical figures like the Mad Hatter, the Red Queen and the rabbit. The adult world of Ofelia’s fantasies is much, much scarier. She enters a portal in the tree that is unmistakably vaginal. This is a voyage into her own interior which is filled with mystery and fear. Yet she proceeds with curiosity and bravery. What is her task there? She must slay the monster within, the monster that is selfishly and voraciously killing the tree. Is this an Adam and Eve reference to the tree of life where one regains Eden by resisting the temptations of the snake--or in this case the toad--by slaying him instead? The toad represents her fantasy that the appetites of the adult world lead to the rape of the land. She wants to extinguish these forces. This is not surprising given the real world in which she lives.
Task two is similar. Again, Ofelia enters through a portal, this time into a beautiful internal world where a sumptuous feast is laid out before her. Her task there is twofold. First, in a metaphor for sexual intercourse, she must insert a key into the correct lock and extract a dangerous but beautiful phallic symbol, the knife. This is consistent with common childhood fantasies of the sexual act as mysterious and dangerous. Her second task is to resist the feast. Her life depends on it. If she gives in the Pale Man--another representation of sadistic masculinity and the fate that befalls the careless female--he will devour her. Yet, she is hungry and quite tempted. If she resists the temptation, her childhood is safe and reunification with parental figures is possible. If she gives in to her appetite, she awakens the slumbering, nightmarish man who will devour her. She beats a hasty retreat from this tempting inner world. She is nearly trapped, narrowly escaping through another portal she draws with her magic chalk. Nevertheless, she is severely chastised by the faun for her brief loss of control and she is told that paradise is forever denied her.
In task three she must deliver her brother to the faun so he can shed innocent blood to open the portal in the womblike labyrinth. Though she doesn’t know it, again Ofelia is called upon to exercise restraint and self denial in order to see her fantasy of childhood safety and reunification with protective parents gratified.
Adolescence is a tumultuous time. In order to optimally negotiate the transition to adult identity and sexuality, it is necessary that a child have a secure base from which to explore and secure trusted adults to depend on. Ofelia has neither and I think her fantasies represent one possible outcome of adolescent development gone awry. Faced with fear of internal developing impulses and external examples of the hopelessness and destructiveness of adult life, many children cannot proceed. Ofelia chooses a kind of ascetic self sacrifice and denunciation of her instincts. Her situation is truly hopeless and in my opinion she comes to a bad end either way we look at it. If we deny the reality of her fantasies, all her bravery has been for naught and she lies dying. If her fantasies are true and she does transcend, she is eternally a dependent but secure child, always the princess, never the queen.
Del Toro intends to suggest that Ofelia’s fantasy world is real. He says this in his commentary on the DVD. He accomplishes this by skillfully and gradually blending the cold gray color palette that he uses to depict the real world with the soft bronze hues of the fantasy world. He also does this by allowing some of the magical objects like the chalk to be seen and touched by the real characters. Del Toro tells us that he believes fairies and the world of imagination are real. Ofelia transcends through sacrifice. Viewed psychoanalytically, however, we have a desperately frightened little girl on the cusp of womanhood who lives in a real world which lacks hope. She bravely flirts with the pressure of her instinctual development. Unlike the fairy tale princess who lives happily ever after with the prince, Ofelia wants nothing so much as to return to a childhood world of safety and protection.