Narrative Desire and Disobedience in Pan's Labyrinth

Article excerpt

In an early scene in Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth, Carmen, the very pregnant mother of the protagonist, Ofelia, takes a book of fairy stories from Ofelia's hands and says, "I don't understand why you had to bring so many books, Ofelia. Fairy tales, you're a bit too old to be filling your head with such nonsense."1 As soon as the words pass her lips, Carmen feels a sudden need to vomit. And thus an important theme of the film is presented as a warning: rejecting fairy tales will make you barf.

While I raise this warning as a joke, the importance of story and storytelling to Pan's Labyrinth is no joking matter. Attention to story is paramount in this film, and not as a panacea for the hardships of "real" life; the relationship between characters and various types of narrative is key to survival, both of the stories themselves and of the characters who tell them. This paper asks how the narrative desires of the characters interact at the level of story ("what" is being told) and how the desires at work in the narrative itself play out at the level of discourse ("how" a story is told - in cinematic texts in terms of miseen-scène and editing). Key to my reading of Pan's Labyrinth is the notion of disobedience: the refusal of characters to submit to the narrative desires of others at their own expense as well as the disobethence of the film itself to satisfy audience desires and conventional generic expectations. In this reading the fairy tale is the vehicle through which the film not only problematizes and resists reductive and regulatory discourses of particular characters within the text but also challenges audiences and critics who may be tempted to produce reductive readings or employ totalizing textual theories.

Pan's Labyrinth is an original cinematic fairy tale that makes clear visual and verbal references to oral, literary, and cinematic fairy-tale traditions. In its intertextual references Pan's Labyrinth announces its fealty to the fairy tale in the alignment of its heroine with well-known fairy-tale heroines like Snow White, Lewis Carroll's Alice (Alice in Wonderland 1865), and Dorothy of MGM's The Wizard of Oz (1939). Ofelia's connections to these characters is particularly apparent in her appearance: her black hair, white skin, and red lips; the dress and pinafore her mother gives her; and the red shoes she taps at the end of the film. Intertextual references also contribute to the hybrid nature of this particular text, which employs familiar imagery, plot structures, and character types not only from fairy tales but also from other genres such as the period political drama, horror, and dark fantasy. Thus, Pan's Labyrinth's hybrid nature itself constitutes a form of disobethence to audience expectations of each of these genres by combining genres that are normally distinct. Also notable are the "disobedient" or unconventional choices Guillermo del Toro made as the writer, director, and producer of the film and which he remarks upon in his extradiegetic voice-over commentary on the DVD.2

Disobedience is an important factor in fairy tales. So much so that Vladimir Propp notes "interdiction" and "violation" of the interdiction as functions 2 and 3 in Morphology of the Folktale. Indeed, it is often a specific disobethent act that sets the tale in motion or continues it on its trajectory: Snow White disobeys the dwarves and answers the door to the witch; Dorothy runs away from the farm; Alice leaves her sister to chase the white rabbit. In Pan's Labyrinth disobethence is a primary theme that is coded as positive, and even essential to survival. And, I would like to argue, disobethence does not function only as a theme in Pan's Labyrinth, but it also can be found at the level of discourse, and it is closely related to narrative desires.

Narrative Desire

Discussions of narrative desire and the dynamics of reading pleasure are most often inflected by psychoanalysis, as shown in Peter Brooks's Reading for the Plot and Teresa de Lauretis's Alice Doesn't: Feminism, Semiotics, and Cinema, both published in 1984. …