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The Beautifully Grotesque: Pan’s Labyrinth and LA BELLE ET LA Bête

When I first encountered Pan’s Labyrinth in 2007, my initial reaction was disgust. All I could remember after watching the film was a scene in which a frog essentially turns itself inside out (that’s a nice way of putting it), and I was wondering why such a nasty visual was deemed necessary by visionary director Guillermo del Toro. Yet, days later, my mind was still down the labyrinth, hanging out with that creepy monster with eyes in his hands. In a short amount of time, the grotesque first encounter turned into something beautiful, and I have since watched the film over and over, enjoying its unexpected layers of depth in addition to incredible imagination.

It’s difficult to explain why Pan’s Labyrinth qualifies as a beautiful “fairy tale for grownups.” In reality, there is a lot of death, violence, and unsettling visual elements that contribute to the fabric of the film. The young Ofelia is the saving grace, as is the fact that del Toro is not shying away or dumbing down a story that could easily become a joke. By setting the whimsical adventure against the back-drop of war-torn Spain in 1944, del Toro challenges the audience to take a journey deep into child psychology or perhaps an alternate reality. Ofelia is drawn into the labyrinth by the mysterious faun-like creature Pan who gives her a quest that will ultimately save her and her mother from the authoritative hand of the evil stepfather. Of course, in this harsh world, things don’t turn out with a “happily ever after” per se, but Ofelia does at least find her way home.

More interesting, perhaps, is the way audiences and critics responded to the film: with overwhelming positive reviews and an almost cult following. The title began appearing on “Best of the Year” lists across the nation, and when awards season rolled out, Pan’s was competing for the highest honors. If someone had described the visual landscape to me, I would have thought these award people were crazy. After seeing it, I agreed: this is, somehow, against all odds, one of the more beautiful films to have crossed our way this past decade. But, inarguably, Pan’s Labyrinth does not fit into our traditional construct of beauty. It is a prime example of the Grotesque. Regardless, at the end of the film, I use the term “beauty” to describe it. Belle.

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