The Revelations and Reawakenings of Guillermo del Toro

By  · Published on December 20th, 2016

On Guillermo del Toro’s use of the circular narrative and sense of place in Pan’s Labyrinth and Crimson Peak.

Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth is a fairytale, but not one that follows the traditional Walt Disney framework audiences have become accustomed to. Rather than framing his film about a girl’s magical quest between the opening and closing of a book, del Toro instead centers the film between the death of the title character Ofelia (Ivana Baquero). In the more recent Crimson Peak, del Toro opens and concludes with Mia Wasikowska’s character Edith Cushing not quite looking directly into the camera. Dressed in white with snow falling around her, she asserts that ‘ghosts are real. This much I know,’ with the irony here being that Edith herself looks like a ghost.

In these opening and closing shots that frame the narrative, del Toro uses costume design and cinematography to make his characters one with their surroundings. In Pan’s Labyrinth, the tilted close up of Ofelia places focus on her dark clothing that seems to blend with the floor she lies on. Meanwhile, the close up used to frame Edith binds her with the snow’s significance of new beginnings, drawing her away from the past that Allerdale Hall encompasses, along with the ghosts that haunt it.

Through del Toro’s focus on the importance of place for Ofelia and Edith, it becomes clear the director combines his circular narrative structure with the place the characters are in. The revelations and awakenings of Ofelia and Edith come when del Toro centers them in a world that holds connections to the past and the future, with these Other places crossing the border from the known into the unknown, allowing his characters to explore otherwise suppressed questions.

In one of the first film adaptations of Beauty and the Beast, Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête presents viewers with a world not dissimilar to Pan’s Labyrinth. The way the tree branches open to reveal the Beast’s castle to Belle’s father mirrors the opening of a storybook, presenting an entrance for the character to cross borders from the world of reality to the world of dreams. In Pan’s Labyrinth this is presented from the very beginning, with the viewer entering the world and quests Ofelia faces through her eye. The way in which the camera moves in controlled rhythm with the blood coming from Ofelia reflects the fairytale dynamic of the film. Del Toro presents to audiences here the recognition of the constructions of the film: the recognition of the circular narrative, the storybook quests Ofelia comes to face through an actual storybook, and the recognition of his references to tales outside of the story he is telling; references such as Cronus devouring his child, The Red Shoes, and his own film The Devil’s Backbone.

The similarities between La Belle et la Bête and Pan’s Labyrinth continue as both films represent the desire and beauty that comes with fairytales. In La Belle… Josette Day’s titular character is presented with luxurious gowns and jewelry that provide a direct contrast to her life outside of the Beast’s castle. For Ofelia, however, del Toro creates choices for her. From the table of forbidden foods in her magical world to the curiosities she is told not to explore, Ofelia is continuously faced with the dichotomy of obedience and disobedience. It is only in the world of fairytales, the world where her quest lies, where this struggle disappears and Ofelia is left to explore the new world around her. Note, however, the differences between the separations of the two worlds each film creates: in La Belle… the boundaries between the enchanted world and the rational world are dictated through mirrors, while Pan’s Labyrinth’s borders between the war and death of reality against the escapism and adventure of the labyrinth are presented through a juxtaposition of within and without, as well as through del Toro’s choice in colour palettes. Where the former presents Belle’s reality as a reflection of herself, the latter represents how Ofelia’s ‘reality’ is not her reality, but rather that of the adults surrounding her. For Ofelia, this world is simply an obstacle through which she must tackle with in order to reach her world.

As emphasized from the opening of Pan’s Labyrinth, viewers are seeing both the real and magical world through Ofelia’s perspective. Therefore when her revelations come they are a mystery to viewers, just like they are a mystery to Ofelia. The way in which she enters the magical world and discovers her enigmas connote the secrecy around her adventures, something which makes them more valuable. To get to each of her quests, for example retrieving a golden key from a toad, Ofelia has to enter new worlds, worlds that are often located underneath the life her stepfather has subjected her to. Before her quests begin Ofelia travels into the faun’s labyrinth with the camera movement that twists into a birds eye view shot of her descending lower and lower into the mystical, relating back to the introduction of Pan’s Labyrinth and Ofelia’s eye. At this vital moment, the beginning of Ofelia’s journey, del Toro is creating stories within stories as he takes viewers on a journey from death, to life, to fairytale, and back to death again. And as Ofelia continues with each quest, the more she is immersed into the world of the faun, leaving behind pieces of herself in order to gain perspective on her new world. Each quest asks her to take something and with each object Ofelia takes, a part of her self is gained.

Inspired by Henry James, del Toro has repeated the words of the film’s protagonist in saying that Crimson Peak is not a ghost story, but a ‘story with a ghost in it.’ For the director the ghosts represent the past, and therefore for Edith they signify her desire to be in the present. Rather than using ghosts to elicit reactions from the film’s central figures, del Toro instead uses the living to act as the ghosts, trapping Edith inside a house that bleeds. Edith’s entrapment by her husband Thomas Sharpe and his sister Lucille (Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain) forces her to confront her fears of the past and fears of ghosts, due to having seen one after her mother died when she was young.

In the same way Pan’s Labyrinth’s Ofelia is forced into a new setting because of her stepfather, Edith is left trapped in Allerdale Hall due to her marriage to Sharpe. Yet where Ofelia is able to escape from her world and into fables through trees and square doors in walls, Edith is left with the challenge of having to confront the mysteries and enigmas of her past self in order to live in the present. This, of course, is explored through del Toro’s red, intricately created ghosts, but it’s important to note the importance Thomas and Lucille, particularly the latter, play in Edith’s reawakening of who she truly is. Thomas Sharpe acts as a three-dimensional device for Edith to explore her emotions through, essentially becoming the embodiment of her hope and abilities she will later come to use. In the scene where Edith and Sharpe are dancing together with only the flame of a candle in between them, Hiddleston’s character describes how a waltz should be so ‘swift, so delicate, and so smooth’ that the flame wouldn’t be distinguished when in the hands of the lead dancer. In this point of the film it is Sharpe who is the lead character; however by the time del Toro returns viewers to the scene first presented at the opening with Edith in the snow, it is she who is the lead dancer, holding the flame of the candle alight.

Lucille, meanwhile, acts as a polar opposite to Edith’s character. She uses metaphors of butterflies and moths to contrast their nature, describing how butterflies die due to lack of heat while black moths ‘thrive on the dark and the cold.’ Del Toro extends these microcosms of juxtaposing characters through to their costumes: Edith’s dresses often have big, puffy yet delicately patterned shoulders and the colors del Toro uses for her dress code are not dissimilar to the color palette the director creates for the enchanted world Ofelia comes to be a part of. For Lucille, the director draws attention to the dark, teal colors of her dress, providing something more enigmatic than simply black. When in Allerdale Hall he often frames Lucille in close-ups to represent her as being one with the breathing house – as one with the past – something further emphasized through the moth prints on the wallpaper of the mansion. And it is Lucille who lives in the past, stuck in time just like the ghosts that haunt the present. Edith, then, comes to represent the future, with the gothic mansion providing her with the journey of searching for herself, and it is Thomas Sharpe who acts as the stepping stone between Lucille’s past and Edith’s present. His character acts as the in between stage Edith needs to use in order to find herself but lose her love.

The gothic mansion that is the centre of this anti-romance gothic romance film is most important for Edith’s reawakening; it is in here she faces a similar kind of quest to Ofelia: first Edith retrieves a set of keys in order to unlock the secrets of Allerdale Hall – which unconsciously unlocks the secrets of Edith – and next she has to attempt to escape. The journey del Toro places these characters on leads each of them to discover a true sense of self. Ofelia is finally able to be recognized as Princess Moanna, and Edith has the revelation that ghosts are, in fact, real. While the characters’ awakenings are deep in fantasy, it ultimately does not matter as they have used the challenges brought to them in order to find themselves and who they are. Allerdale Hall has similarities to the gothic mansions presented in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane and Bryan Fuller’s TV show Hannibal, with both the former and latter being used to look backward into the past. Mansions, then, can be a form of time travel and detachment from the known world into the unknown, creating moments of revelations for the characters that inhabit their space. Allerdale Hall takes the latter two examples, as well as the poetic borders created in La Belle et la Bête’s mansion, and furthers them. Del Toro’s presentation of a gothic mansion proves that these places not only have to provide a series of revelations, but they can also be a living, breathing part of a narrative. When Allerdale Hall is called Crimson Peak, it is because of the red soil that seeps up from beneath the ground. Red is used sparingly in the film, and the only other noticeable times it can be seen is with the coloring of the ghosts. Therefore, through color, del Toro inextricably links the mansion with the ghosts; he locates it in the past away from the future and everything Edith wants to be.

For the BFI’s Sight & Sound Kim Newman describes how Edith is a ‘post-modern gothic heroine.’ As much as this is true for Edith, it is also true of Ofelia – instead being a post-modern fairytale heroine. For del Toro, he culminates each protagonist’s reawakening with the importance of the sense of place. What is left of the imagery at the end of Pan’s Labyrinth are the golden tones used to emphasise that Ofelia’s journey between two worlds is complete. In Crimson Peak, the white snow, Edith’s white dress, and her hair leaves the reminder that she is no longer stuck in the past, no longer attached to the ghosts of her memory. Both characters subvert their genres, using what would typically kill them or save them – think mysterious fauns, the pale man, ghosts, or young English men – as things with which they can journey through, allowing them to experience revelations and awakenings about themselves.

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Freelance writer based in the UK.