A while back I wrote a couple of posts complaining about the lack of fantasy in film. As I noted then, there are lots of fantasy films in a generic or material sense. Some of them (e.g., Conan the Barbarian) are among my favorite movies. The problem is that they fail to convey the sense of myth, of mystery, of otherworldliness, that I'm always looking for. To see what I mean, think of Fantasy as Tolkien describes it in "On Fairy Stories," translated into film.
The best good example I could come up with at the time, The Night of the Hunter, technically isn't fantasy at all. It comes close, though, in that it translates tales like Hansel and Gretel and The Juniper Tree into an American idiom. It's gothic masterpiece, by turns beautiful and terrifying.
The first is La Belle et la Bête (1946), a French adaptation of the traditional tale of Beauty and the Beast (most famously novelized by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont in 1756) directed by the great Jean Cocteau. What a beautiful, bizarre, unsettling film this is!
Its plot hews fairly closely to the original story, though introducing a ne'er-do-well brother and his freeloading friend, who also happens to be Belle's failed suitor. Everyone knows how the tale itself goes, so I'll not comment on that directly.
What makes this movie magical is the style: the sets, the acting, the camera work. The Beast's castle is alive, with candelabras that are living arms, and hearth ornaments that watch you as you move about the room. There's an overpowering sense of claustrophobia and decay: the rooms are broodingly dark and stuffy, the gardens are overgrown, and everything is over-decorated and run down. It gives me the same feeling that certain nightmares give me, vaguely unsettling rather than frightening. Cocteau has been called a Surrealist filmmaker and, though I think he denied the connection, there is a strong element of surrealism in this film. The image of ants crawling in and out of a man's hand is not far away here. At many points I was also reminded of Gustave Doré.
Toward the end, as the Beast lies dying of his hitherto-unrequited love for Belle, the brother and friend sneak onto the Beast's castle grounds and try to break into a treasure-house called Diana's Pavilion, which (we've been told) houses the Beast's true riches. As the friend attempts to climb through the glass roof, a statue of the goddess comes to life and shoots him with an arrow. He drops into the chamber, transforming into the Beast.
The Beast becomes a handsome Prince at the same instant. He's a pretty popinjay, with golden hair, poofy pantaloons, and tights. He glibly explains what had transformed him into a Beast. He's flip. He's chatty. He's annoying. He's the precise antithesis of his tragic and brooding former self.
The look on Belle's face is priceless, a mixture of pleasure, surprise, and (perhaps) dismay – it's plain that she doesn't exactly know what to make of him. Is she disappointed that the Beast she has come to love has been replaced by this chattering doll? The Prince embraces her. They fly up into the sky to return to his kingdom, and that's the end.
So what exactly is going on here? At first the ending really bothered me, but on reflection it seems like something is going on under the surface. The film is just too conscious of what it's doing for it to be an accident. There's a sense I get when I think about the most powerful fairy tales, myths, and stories, that it isn't good to dissect things too much. They have mystery rather than meaning, in the sense that there is something there, something subconscious that can't be reduced to words or concepts. That's how this movie makes me feel, so perhaps I'll stop there.
At any rate, it's apparent that this film has influenced many things; Ridley Scott's Blade Runner and Legend and Francis Ford Coppola's Dracula spring to mind. (Come to think of it, both Legend and Bram Stoker's Dracula are decent examples of fantasy in film. I haven't seen either in a very long time, so perhaps I'll have to revisit them soon.)
Del Toro is a director I've been coming more and more to appreciate; I've watched a number of his works from various phases in his career, e.g., Cronos, Blade II, the Hellboy movies, and Pacific Rim. Though ranging from low-budget horror to art films to popcorn fare, his movies exhibit certain common themes, as well as an obsessive precision and explicitness and a preoccupation with clockwork and insects. For years he's been wanting to do an At the Mountains of Madness adaptation, which, because of our sins, continues to be put off. His gothic romance Crimson Peak is coming soon, and I'm very excited about it.
Most of del Toro's works are tinged with some horror, and Pan's Labyrinth is certainly no exception. It features what may be the most terrifying monster ever to appear on screen: the infamous Pale Man. The monsters and other creatures are largely done with make-up and animatronics, heightening the realism and very real terror.
After a mythic prelude, the story unfolds against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War, in the forests and mountains of the northwest. The protagonist is a little girl named Ofelia, the stepdaughter of a brutal, psychotic Francoist military commander, Captain Vidal. Ofelia and her pregnant mother have come to stay at the outpost because Vidal wants his wife by his side when she gives birth. There are really two parallel story lines, one centered on Ofelia and her soon-to-be-born baby brother, the other on Mercedes, Vidal's housekeeper, a spy for rebel guerillas in the area (one of whom is her brother).
Incidentally, despite the Spanish language and location, the movie made me think more of English fairy tales and literature than (say) magic realism, what with the Celtic artifacts, the references to Lewis Carroll and Shakespeare, and so on. Of course Goya's Black Paintings and Disasters of War are never far away, either.
Pan's Labyrinth is a dark and beautiful masterpiece, a terrifying fairy tale brought to life. Both these films make you remember that a true fairy tale is a story that begins in the prosaic and ends in the unbounded wonders and horrors of the irrational subconscious.