Pan’s labyrinth is a fantasy film, and hence easily charming. One must be able to discern through all the magic ingenuity, not artifice, and still be able to dwell in the mystical universe it offers credibly. The 2006 Guillermo del Toro movie mixes the fantastical and the political, producing an incongruous but brilliant interweaving of a story set in the Francoist Spain with the story of Princess Moanna speckled with many fairy tales.
The real and the magical are almost two parallel worlds, where the only seemingly common link is the little girl, Ophelia. This is quite curious for if myths are popular, that is because they are easily brilliant subversions or satires on the status quo, invoking a critique from even beyond the archaeological past. This juxtaposition of the two, suggests an air of free interpretation in application, but certain specificity in themes. For instance, it is the labyrinth that leads Captain Vidal to the rebels, emphasising the commonality of morality in the disparate worlds. Most characters are awesomely portrayed, underplaying when needed like, the Doctor Ferreiro and, nuanced and violent like Captain Vidal. But of course, it is important to distinguish between the characters that propel the plot forward and are thus important, and characters that are important because they simply are.
The most bewitching of the characters in Pan’s labyrinth is the Faun [followed by the mandrake root inarguably], played by Doug Jones. The faun, in roman mythology is an untamed spirit of untamed woodland. It is depicted very differently in the movie, large, looking unhuman, and made of earth, bark and water. The faun is Ophelia’s portal to the underworld; he presents her with the book of crosswords which contain the three tasks she must solve to reach the other world, he scolds her when she disobeys him and tells her she can never return before elaborating on the morality that will befall her among the humans. Interestingly, it is this mortality that delivers to her the immortality of the underworld and the reunion with her parents.
Thus, in Pan’s labyrinth, the faun is an ambiguous figure which points to the fine overlapping, yet divisions between the magical world and the world. He is at the same time, a protective, reassuring parental figure and a sinister creature which invites doubt and distrust. Appearances must be deceiving however, as the faun points to a stone pillar in which is carved a very young faun holding the baby Princess Moanna and the faun ultimately guides her to her ‘real’ home outside the real world and greets her happily with the calm of a confidence that she would return. Del Toro’s faun is very different, in many interesting ways from the two other famous portrayals of fauns in popular art: that of Stephen Mallarme and Nijinsky.
Stephen Mallarme’s L’après-midi d’un faune probably edged the poor faun dangerously, and too close near the seductive nymphs. He worries if the women of his fantasies might be just that, plays a flute, and drink in his sorrow to celebrate the memory of his nymphs. This melange of easy sensuality, with intense emotions and a penchant for a powerful description which betray a carnal connection with the earth show a creature in love with a passion. Passion, as the poem is not about the faun’s love for a nymph, or many nymphs at that-but a wild celebration involving them where they seem to symbolise the beauty of the nature in movements, identified in lines such as ‘plunged in the cooling waves, immortal necks’. This is further underlined by the extremely sensory nature of the poem, where dying roses yield the sun their scent and the faun carries two entangled sleeping women to a height.
His delight in the two virgins is obvious and guiltless, and he acknowledges their mixed emotions but brushes away the sin for the afternoon’s beauty and it is to this that the faun retreats after a careful introspection unto his passion. To this, he reiterates the dominating nature of passion and how others will lead him to the same happiness it entails, at the same time waiting and watching this heedless passion head towards the desires, vague and recurring. Soon, he regresses to sleep and relieves himself of sin in the afternoon and the ‘wine growing star’ bidding farewell to the couple ending with a suggestion that the inebriation will soon eliminate any feelings of guilt or sin.
The afternoon on a faun, doesn’t explore a regular afternoon in the life of a faun, rather it is a dream song almost, of a passion and desire unfolded with a revelry of detail, implying emotions of an opulence adorned by a shameless passion. The imagery, fluid and beautiful adds to the poem the essential dream like quality which enhances the sensuality of the poem.
The other portrayal of a faun, perhaps the controversial one, is that of Nijinsky in the ballet of the same name, based on the song by Claude Debussy. Of course, the film of the ballet isn’t available, only reproductions of it by other artistes. Manoeuvres around a great work is tricky for, to add elements is to risk underplaying elements original to the music, and interpretation of it is to explore its meanings fully and naturally. Indeed Claude Debussy’s tonal ‘Prelude to the afternoon of a faun’ copies breathtakingly the sensual-erotic nature of Mallarme’s poem. The free-wheeling, delicate music surrounds around the image of faun in your mind, and preserves the purity of his sinful passions. Vaslav Nijinsky’s ballet is another issue altogether; the ballet presumes to provide a unified image to the composition.
The choreography and the fame it continues to receive speak its success. And it being truer to Debussy works well; for the ballet captures the essence of the poem through the music. And I like to think; the ballet conflates the music and the poem in a way that it creates an entity out of the fragments of identity in the music and the poem and grants the faun, his person.
The elegance of the ballet provides a veil of restraint to the animal and the virile faun thus helping in maintaining the mystical fantastic that is his world, and observes the emotions at play, of the beauty and the desire and passion in it. Thus when the ballet dancer runs around with the veil of the nymph after flirting with several delineate a very violent passion, all through the subtleties in ballet and Debussy. Along with it, Nijinsky’s work alone captures the weariness of the faun, after the quest to satiate these recurring longings. Nijinisky’s version is lost, however the reconstructed versions preserve the equanimity of the passion in all its glory, of a chaotic restraint in beauty.
The metamorphosis of the faun, from the goat man, to the new Pan, and now the amiable figure in Pan’s labyrinth is interesting for anyone who admires interpretation. It somehow grants the ethereal object, a fixity in the real world, one of donning different roles, like an actor and thus somehow more real. The fleeting faun of the moments in Debussy, the controlled abandon in Nijinsky, the sensuous in Mallarme, and the pivotal friend of Del toro all present the faun and shade it in various amazing colours setting it in different tableaux of independent meaning.