Pan’s Labyrinth is a film directed by Mexican film-maker Guillermo del Toro and is a more contemporary rendering of a similar theme as that of the fairy tale, The Girl Without Hands. It vividly illustrates the de-potentiation and denigration of the Feminine by the Patriarchy through its character development and the interweaving of two worlds — the imaginary world (feminine, irrational, unconscious) and the ‘real’ world (masculine, rational, conscious). At the beginning of the film, these two worlds are completely separate. As the film proceeds, they gradually intertwine and, by the end of the film, they have become completely interwoven and influenced by each other. The film’s imaginary and ‘real’ world structure depicts its very own ‘individuation process’ — the integration of the opposites of ‘real’/imaginary, conscious/unconscious, Masculine/Feminine. Additionally, the storyline ends with the rescue of the infant boy (a new masculine potential) by the young feminine that still has sufficient contact with the archetypal feminine and dares to make her journey into this dark, underground realm.
Pan’s Labyrinth is set in post-Civil War Spain, 1944. Captain Vidal (representing the ‘real’ world and the Patriarchy) heads a military post of the Franco regime. He viciously hunts, fights and kills the guerrilla resistance who live and hide out in the nearby mountain. The film opens with a young girl, Ofelia (representing the imaginative world, the Feminine realm) lying bleeding on the ground while a fairy tale is being narrated about a princess of an underground realm longing to become part of the human realm with its blue skies, soft breeze and sunshine (all masculine symbols). One day, she eludes her keepers and escapes her underground world. The sunlight (masculine Logos) blinds her and she forgets her “roots” (the unconscious, underground, feminine realm). She forgets who she is and from where she came. Her father, the King, always knew that the princess’ soul would return one day.
After this opening scene with its narration of the fairy tale, the film continues in the ‘real’ world with a caravan en route to the mill (the military post) carrying Carmen, Vidal’s pregnant wife and her daughter, Ofelia. Carmen gets sick and asks the driver to stop. Ofelia wanders off a short way and meets an insect (a fairy) which follows the caravan to the mill. Ofelia’s imaginative (inner world) adventure begins in earnest when the ‘fairy’ appears one night and leads her to the Labyrinth where she meets the Faun. The Faun tells her that he believes she is Princess Moanna who was born of the moon and is from the underground realm. He gives her three tasks to complete before the moon is full to prove that her ‘essence’ is still intact and that she has not become a mortal (of the external world). Her first task is to retrieve a key from inside the belly of a monstrous toad who is devastating a fig tree from the inside out; her second task is to use the key to retrieve a dagger from the underground chamber of the Paleman, a child devouring monster; and the final task is to take her baby half-brother from Captain Vidal’s chambers and take him into the Labyrinth. Ofelia accomplishes all three tasks with the help of ‘magic’ but not without some difficulty (failure according to the Faun).
Ofelia’s ‘real’ world story is that of a young girl who loves to read fairy tales and is the daughter of a weak, depressed and oppressed woman of the Patriarchy. Ofelia adamantly objects to calling Captain Vidal “Father”. She loves and cares for her mother and unborn baby brother with the help of some magic and the telling of stories. Her mother eventually dies in childbirth. Early in the film Ofelia meets Mercedes, Captain Vidal’s housekeeper. She and Ofelia develop a strong, surrogate mother-child bond. Ofelia can be described as a curious, creative, quietly assertive and fearless, young girl who is still in touch with the imaginal realm.
Captain Vidal (representing the Patriarchy) is a Fascist officer whose goal is to exterminate the resistance to the Franco regime. He is cold and cruel, with a total lack of Eros (relatedness). He dominates and devalues the Feminine in his mistreatment and humiliation of Carmen (his new wife) and in his disdainful approach to both Ofelia and to Mercedes. Several excerpts will serve to illustrate this.
Upon her arrival, the Captain insists that Carmen sit in a wheelchair. Such action symbolizes his debilitation of Carmen (the dominant Masculine devaluing the Feminine). When asked by a banquet guest how she met the Captain, Carmen delights in telling the story. The Captain, interrupting her, said: “Forgive my wife — she hasn’t been exposed to the world. She thinks these silly stories are interesting to others.” Carmen did not protest. The Captain’s contempt for the feminine can also be seen when he asks the doctor about his (unborn) “son”. Dr. Fereirro asks how he knew it was a boy. The Captain angrily responds: “Don’t fuck with me!” Similarly, when Carmen begins bleeding profusely the Captain tells the doctor: “If you have to choose, choose the boy.” In reference to Mercedes, Captain Vidal states to one of his officers: “For God sake, she’s just a woman.” Lastly, when the doctor disobeys him, the Captain shoots the doctor in the back. The Captain’s psychopathic interactions with others and his intolerance for women (as well as those who disobey him) are well-presented in the film.
Captain Vidal carries, checks and cleans his stopwatch (his father’s watch) throughout the film. This behavior symbolizes his connections to the temporal realm and to his paternal lineage. He ran his life and that of those under his charge by this watch. His obsessive cleaning of this ‘heirloom’ time-piece and his repetitiously polishing of his boots, along with his meticulous care of his person, illustrates his obsessive concern for the identification with his persona. Captain Vidal lived only in the cognitive, rational world of Logos. His life lacked the warmth of Eros and heart connection to others. At the end of the film, this very one-sided Masculine needed to die to give room for a ‘new masculine’ — one which has the potential to form a compensating partnership with its counterpart, the Feminine.
Carmen, wife of Captain Vidal and mother of Ofelia, is a weak women who has totally surrendered to the dominant masculine principle. She is “sad for many days at a time’ and very sick with a difficult pregnancy. Through “Pan’s Labyrinth”, Carmen appears to be emotionally mis-attuned to Ofelia. She scolds Ofelia: “Fairy tales. You are a bit too old to be filling your head with such nonsense.” When Ofelia tells her mother that she saw a fairy, Carmen seemed disinterested and instead instructed Ofelia to be sure to greet the Captain and to be sure to call him “Father” because “he’s been so good to us”. When Ofelia objects to calling Vidal “Father”. Carmen says, “It’s just a word, Ofelia. It’s just a word.” Carmen wants Ofelia to do what she must to please Captain Vidal. Carmen appears to have no empathy for Ofelia regarding the loss of her father and the distress she experiences with her mother’s marriage to the Captain. Carmen herself, does what she must to please the Captain; this is, of course, at a high cost to her own feminine soul. Upon arriving at the mill, the Captain and the doctor had a wheelchair waiting for her. After an initial protest, Carmen dutifully takes her seat in this chair where she remains until she dies in childbirth.
Mercedes is Captain Vidal’s housekeeper and is aligned with the resistance to which her brother Pedro belongs. She demonstrates courage by spying for the resistance, by cutting the Captain’s face (his vanity and pride) and by returning to the mill to rescue Ofelia who is being held captive by Vidal. She becomes a maternal object for Ofelia, taking an interest in what she has to say and being attuned to Ofelia’s feeling states. Throughout the film, Mercedes exhibits a range of feelings from tenderness (when humming a lullaby to Ofelia) to anger and aggressiveness (when she confronts the Captain by cutting his face saying: “You’re not the first pig I’ve gutted.”) Unlike Carmen, who totally surrenders her instinctual feminine authority to the values of the patriarchy (represented by the Captain), Mercedes has a stronger connection to her core self. As a result of this connection, she has the courage to fight for what she believes in.
Dr. Ferreiro was called to the military post to help with Carmen’s difficult pregnancy. Like Mercedes, he is aligned with the rebels. He partners with Mercedes to provide medication and medical assistance to the resistance. The doctor gained enough of his own authority as the film proceeded to disobey the Captain. He loses his life when he shows compassion for one of the Captain’s torture victims. Confronting the Captain, he says: “I could have (obeyed you), but I didn’t obey just like that — for the sake of obedience without questioning. That’s something only people like you do, Captain.”
The Guerrillas represent the Captain’s shadow. They live and hide in the forest (the unconscious). By the end of the film, the dominant patriarchal attitude is defeated by the guerrillas (representing the Self) and a new masculine potential is rescued by Ofelia, the young developing feminine. I understand Carmen and Mercedes to be two forms of the Feminine: Carmen has no connection to her instinctual feminine — her imaginal realm, her feelings or her power. Because of this she could not empathize with her daughter. She blindly accepts the Captain’s dismissal of her own desires and his humiliating treatment of her in front of dinner guests. She obeys without questioning. Carmen has no relationship to the Self (the center of and guiding force of the psyche). On the other hand, Mercedes has some connection to her instinctual feminine — her feelings, her instinctual nurturing potential and her aggressive power to fight for what she believes deep down in her core.
As with the fairy tale, The Girl Without Hands, I posit that the rescued baby boy is representing a new kind of masculine — a masculine that will value its feminine counterpart enough to form a reciprocal and mutual relationship with it, rather than dominating it. Perhaps a different attitude toward the nurturance of the child (the experiencing, spontaneous, imaginative) will come from such a joining of this new Masculine and the Feminine.