Released in 2006 and directed by Mexican director Guillermo Del Toro, Pan’s Labyrinth is set in the Falangist Spain of 1944 and follows the young stepdaughter of a sadistic army officer as she escapes into an eerie but captivating fantasy world (IMDb, 2006). Del Toro uses many different elements of mise-en-scene to manipulate the narrative in Pan’s Labyrinth, and often leaves the decisions as to whether the ‘fantasy’ part of the narrative is in fact fantasy or reality up to the audience’s interpretation. I will be analysing how Del Toro uses these aspects of mise-en-scene to highlight the differences between reality and fantasy, and whether these techniques are realistic or stylistic. According to Bordwell, Thompson and Smith in their ‘Film Art’ book, film scholars use the term mise-en-scene to “signify the director’s control over what appears in the film frame”, mainly consisting of traditional theatrical components such as: setting, lighting, costume and makeup, staging and performance, and props. (Bordwell, Thompson & Smith, 2017). Whilst Andrew Dix agrees with Bordwell, Thompson and Smith in his book ‘Beginning Film Studies’, he also suggests that perhaps mise-en-scene in film as a medium is even broader than just the traditional theatrical workings, including other factors such as framing, camera movement and camera equipment (Dix, 2016). I will be using the traditional theatrical components of mise-en-scene for my analysis with a particular focus on setting, props and performance.
Books in Pan’s Labyrinth appear lots. From the car journey to Captain Vidal’s camp, to the book the Faun gives Ofelia – Books play a large role in the creation of fantasy in Pan’s Labyrinth. In the first scene of the film where Carmen (Ofelia’s mother) and Ofelia are travelling in the car, Carmen highlights the amount of books Ofelia has brought with her, and her disapproval of her reading them, saying: “Why did you bring so many books Ofelia? … Fairy tales? You’re a bit too old to be filling your head with such nonsense”. This straight away suggests that Ofelia indulges in these fairy tale books as a form of escapism, and her whole mentality is ‘filled’ with the contents within. This is a key use of mise-en-scene in starting to give the audience a basis to decide whether what they are watching is fantasy or reality as although the film contains all sorts of fairies and monsters, the props pose the question as to whether these images are figures of Ofelia’s imagination based on the fairy tales, or whether the trials she is completing and characters she is interacting with are part of reality. Shortly after this scene, Del Toro begins to build on this basis as Ofelia drops the books in the mud to chase after what is believed to be a fairy – why would she drop her most prized possessions to chase after something which is not real? Not only does Ofelia use books as a source of escapism, these props also act as a symbol of refuge for Ofelia. This is shown in the scene where she is trying to sleep and hears noises in the room.
These sounds frighten her, and she only gets increasingly frightened when the insect from the previous scenes which Ofelia thought was a fairy lands on the bed and approaches her. As a coping mechanism, Ofelia grabs one of her books and the insect transforms into something resembling the fairy from the picture in the book – Ofelia’s imagination has changed her reality into something more bearable, which can be seen as a metaphor for her escape from the reality of a fascist Francoist Spain; her imagination is perhaps her only defence and distraction against the oppressive powers of Captain Vidal and fascism, reinforced by how she grasps the books with her right hand sacrificing conventional etiquette when shaking hands with Captain Vidal on their first encounter (Fig 1) – using her books to shield her body. Setting is perhaps one of the largest and most important aspects of mise-en-scene and is where a director can show off artistically, or alternatively use their skills to portray a realistic setting for their work. In Pan’s Labyrinth, Del Toro demonstrates both of these skills, including stylistic settings for the portrayal of the royal ‘underworld’, with rich golds and reds, and abstract structures (Fig 2) – and also a large amount of realistic settings such as Captain Vidal’s camp, a simple building in a forest (Fig 3). These realistic and stylistic choices clearly define the differences between fantasy and reality, where it is otherwise ambiguous in other parts of the film where reality is merged with unrealistic characters and creatures. In Ofelia’s first encounter with Pan the Faun, Ofelia ventures just outside of the camp into a maze which is named the ‘Labyrinth’ due to its confusing complex of ruins.
Quality costume and makeup has been used to create a convincing image of Pan being a real creature rather than part of Ofelia’s imagination, continuing this ambiguous theme. In addition, the setting is helping to support the thesis that Pan is part of Ofelia’s imagination as the old ruins of the Labyrinth can act as a catalyst for Ofelia’s imagination – historic over grown ruins sparking the creation of a fitting ancient imaginary tree-like creature (Fig 4). Another two settings with great importance within the film are the scenes of Captain Vidal’s dinner, and the second task which Ofelia is set by Pan which involves entering the ‘Pale Man’s lair. Each of these scenes represent different cinematic choices made my Del Toro, with the setting of Captain Vidal’s scene being a realistic setting representing reality, and the setting with Ofelia and the Pale Man in being a more stylistic setting representing the fantastical side of the film and Ofelia’s imagination. Captain Vidal is positioned at the end of the table (Fig 5)and is therefore automatically singled out as the most important person on the table due to his central staging and the channelled attention from the other guests towards him. This suggests links to fascism, with Vidal constantly exerting self-confidence and independence, and also a lack of compassion for his guests who argue that the ration cards they have received will not be enough to feed their families – which are all traits which link to the characteristics of a dictator (Fallon, 2011). The guests he is eating dinner with are all represented as important and wealthy through their costumes including fancy suits and dresses – and through the performance of Captain Vidal going out into the rain to welcome them – in comparison to other characters such as Mercedes who wear standard dresses and don’t particularly stand out as important to Vidal. Despite their status, Captain Vidal ignores their opinions when he is challenged about the decisions he has made for the rations – also reinforcing his autocratic leadership style.
Later on in the film, there is a scene parallel to this scene with a monster positioned at the end of a table filled with a rich banquet (Fig 6). The setting in this scene is similar to that of the scene with Vidal with engraved stone walls resembling the fire place in the previous scene and similar lighting, although warmer colour temperature shows the audience that they are now entering the comfort of Ofelia’s mind and are out of reality. The positioning of the Pale Man suggests that the Pale Man is an allegory for Ofelia’s views of Captain Vidal shown through her imagination, with the Pale Man seemingly being completely oblivious to Ofelia’s existence until she disobeys her command to not eat any of the food from the table, at which point the Pale Man attacks her – alike how Captain Vidal gets angry and aggressive towards Ofelia when she steps out of line (Rgromlovits, 2017). Vladimir Propp was a Russian scholar of folktale who outlined seven character profiles which are present in almost all films (Future Learn, 2017). These seven character types include the Villain, the Donor, the Helper, the Princess and her Father, the Dispatcher, the Hero, and the False Hero (The Narratologist, 2014). In Pan’s Labyrinth, performance plays a large role in defining some of these different character types which helps to drive the narrative forwards and keeps it interesting by showing them who they should and should not trust, and who Ofelia needs to trust to get what she most desires, whether she knows it in that point in time or not.
The False Hero is someone who “claims to be the hero, often seeking and reacting like a real hero” (Mediaknowall, 2017). The character who is most fitting to the false hero character type is Pan, although he is originally likely to have believed to have been the hero. His performance throughout the majority of the film is very much stylised to make for a convincing mythical creature and shows him to be helping Ofelia to complete tasks in order to save her from the mortal world and return her soul to the underworld where she can be reunited with her family. She is set three tasks which she must complete to prove her “Essence is still intact” and Pan is there with her every step of the way. The turning point for Pan as a character is when Ofelia makes a mistake by disobeying orders in the second task and gets two of the fairies killed, where the audience see a different side of Pan as he expresses rage toward his supposed royal highness. This, again, brings the audience back to the question as to whether Pan is part of Ofelia’s fantasy or whether he is indeed part of reality, as why would a child create such conflict in their own imagination that they begin to scare themselves? After calming, Pan gives Ofelia one more chance to return to the underworld and sets her the task of bringing her new born brother to him in the Labyrinth, where he tells her that the blood of a new born must be spilled for the portal to open.
This is where it is most apparent that Pan is more of a false Hero, as although Ofelia refuses to let Pan hurt her brother, she still returns to the underworld after she is killed by Vidal – Ofelia is the innocent and her blood allows her entry to the immortal world she has been trying to return to. This final scene is the first and only scene where Ofelia and Pan are in the same scene as another character, and can be seen as the end to the ambiguity of reality or fantasy within the film, as the camera shows Ofelia to be talking to thin air where she believes she is talking to Pan – suggesting that Pan is all part of her imagination (Fig 7). In conclusion, although some of the main components of mise-en-scene that operate as part of the narrative include setting, performance and props, it is evident that there are many more contributing factors such as costume and make up – which makes Pan’s character so convincing, Staging – which helps to portray underlying ideologies using (Captain Vidal’s banquet as an example), and lighting – where colour temperature, and high and low key lighting is used to distinguish the differences between reality and what is believed to be Ofelia’s imagination. Despite this close analysis of the mise-en-scene, Del Toro has very cleverly still left the decision as to whether or not Ofelia’s tasks and desires are all part of her imagination very much up to the audiences perspective – if you watch the film twice, each time approaching it from a realistic and fantastical point of view, the narrative still clear and enjoyable.
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