Bewitching invitation to a lair of monsters

Listen to this article

00:00
00:00

Pan’s Labyrinth, written and directed by Mexico’s Guillermo del Toro, is bewitchingly bonkers. Coming from anywhere but Spanish America it would be hospitalised with advanced whimsy. Critic-doctors would shake their heads at the Lewis Carroll-style plot set in 1940s post-Civil War Spain, in which a fascist officer’s stepdaughter (Ivana Baquero) meets a faun in a stone maze who sets her fantastical tests and tasks. The film’s blend of historical realism and dippy make-believe would be diagnosed as fatal. The patient would be taken off life support and the body burnt to prevent infection.

But magical realism is the province of mad Latins. Del Toro made Cronos and The Devil’s Backbone, films that subjected reality to gothic aerobics and midnight mythopoeia. Pan’s Labyrinth is deadly earnest in its portrait of a time: the aftermath of war, when Franco’s soldiers pushed north to purge the last resistance. Captain Vidal (Sergi López) is a handsome sadist whose new wife, pregnant but ailing, and stepdaughter must get in step with the counter-rebellion. But little Ofelia, a virtual orphan riding into the storm, starts to live in her redeeming imagination and so do we. Here is the ruined labyrinth, here the garrulous faun. Go further to encounter the monster toad, the mazy challenges and the Pale Man, an albino humanoid with eyes set into his hands who presides over a banquet from which no one may eat.

Del Toro, a lapsed Catholic, has hinted that this forbidden repast symbolises the Church. It does and doesn’t. The labyrinth does and doesn’t stand for the Spanish Civil War. And the girl does and doesn’t embody the dawn of a new Spain. As in dreams, the obvious interpretation is just the iceberg’s tip. A vast hull of mystery and poetry remains unsounded, unfathomed. What about the girl’s supernatural stick-insect guide, a dadaist Tinkerbell? Or the chalk outlines she draws in walls to create real passages and doorways?

It could have been feyness, pure and simple-minded. But few other moviemakers have the talent to suggest there are many mansions in make-believe, or the nerve to twin the pantomimic with the implacable. There is a torture scene you want to watch only through your fingers. (Is that the meaning of those eye-implanted hands? “See no evil”, while allowing it to happen?) And there is a DIY lip-stitching, performed on himself by the injured Captain, that will put the heebie-jeebies into the squeamish. Yet that scene is another hint at the denial theme – “speak no evil” – in a magisterial movie that sees truth as the greatest challenge of all, the final mystery and mandate at the heart of the human maze.

Hollywoodland is scandal tourism disguised as cinema. This trip down moviedom’s Memory Lane seems, for a while, trippier than most. When George Reeves, TV’s first Superman, died from a gunshot in 1959, Kane-like questions multiplied around his supposed suicide. Was Reeves (played in flashbacks by Ben Affleck) the victim of career despair? Drink? Drugs? A cuckold’s revenge? What part was played by his lover Toni Mannix (Diane Lane), wife of an MGM bigwig (Bob Hoskins) with a crime-by-association history?

Past and present are intercut as the sleuthings of Adrien Brody’s fictive gumshoe, in an end-of-decade Hollywood, alternate with the giddy party glow of Tinseltown’s temps perdu. Reeves dabbled in a couple of canonic movies (Gone with the Wind, From Here to Eternity). In between, his Man of Steel wiped out attention deficit disorder for a year or two in television’s first generation of children. He seemed ready to rocket. But the price of celebrity is eternal vigilance. If the mistress’s husband doesn’t get you, your fiancée may (played as a tart without a heart by Robin Tunney). Or was it plain despondence, turning to despair, as every seeming career lift-off became, for Reeves, another burn-out?

The two-hour film rambles when it should been tighter and tauter. By final reel, Lane and Tunney have been pushed towards Bad Acting Heaven as the rival lovers who can’t get enough love. The director Allen Coulter, untimely ripped from telly himself (The Sopranos), flounders at around ceiling height, in danger of mimicking his own Superman’s bellyflop in an early, funny scene on the TV sound stage. The surprise success story is Affleck. He won a Venice Best Actor prize and we see why. There are sadness, doubt and humanity, or hints of them, beneath the cheesy grins, the waxen charm: those salesman skills that Affleck himself once perfected, only to discover they were powerless in the face of Pearl Harbor and Gigli.

Jackass Number Two will shock, offend and nauseate, so please form an orderly queue around the block. After topping the charts in the US the film crosses the Atlantic, doubtless to do the same. Science has established that the sight of men drinking horse semen, being branded on the buttocks or putting fish-hooks through their cheeks is compulsive for those who can bear to look at all.

At the press show, most critics were holding five fingers to their faces like the Pale Man in Pan’s Labyrinth. We dodged between digits, watching in V-Vision. These professional japesters have no concern for their safety or our breakfasts. Whenever you think things cannot get worse, they do. The chap eating animal dung and the fellow vomiting inside a “fart helmet” (don’t ask) are mere amuse-gueules compared to the lightly wrapped penis offered to a live adder or the wild bull snagging a lightly wrapped Johnny Knoxville. Then there is the politically sensitive sketch about a mock suicide bomber threatening to blow himself up in a taxi. Not for the squeamish, or the sensitive, or the sensible. Which still, apparently, leaves millions of people ready to buy tickets.

So to higher things. A formal obituary is not enough for Robert Altman. He transformed American cinema. In many phases of his career he was American cinema. In the 1970s he was the best among equals. The Godfather, Taxi Driver, Days of Heaven: none surpassed Nashville, that epic fresco, that operetta seria that did for music-making and its world what Moby Dick did for whaling. Then there was McCabe and Mrs Miller, which did for the western – well, that’s it, it did for the western. You couldn’t make a cowboy film again, or only one as strange, high, offbeat and aspirational as, say, Heaven’s Gate or Brokeback Mountain.

Only one great filmmaker, Orson Welles, overlapped his films’ dialogue in the way Altman did, bringing democracy to the movie stage. Only one great filmmaker, Jean Renoir, kept such magical control of crowded canvases, combining the vertical mobility of social utopianism with the horizontal mobility of people just swirling, mixing, gabbling, interacting.

Newspaper obituaries are sheeted things that live in metal drawers, to be rushed upstairs at short notice with little opportunity, sometimes, for freshening-up. Yesterday Gosford Park went unmentioned, and films following, including Altman’s latest, A Prairie Home Companion. That too is a little miracle: a comedy about death that celebrates mortality as a universal rite of passage, to be laughed at, cried at, wondered at. Something to be unregretted, if not unmourned. Any artist who has found a way to put death in perspective has ensured that death will not have the last word.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't copy articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.