This film is highly original, a very Grimm fairy tale. I’m not sure this is a legitimate literary parallel, but it was very much in the Magic Realist style of latin novelists like Marquez.
It presents reality very much as the child Ofelia sees it, while still allowing us to see outside and beyond her view to include events as they might be objectively. The lovely thing is that it is not ever apparent whose eyes we are seeing with: Ofelia’s, whose world is filled with mythical creatures or the adults’ that act around her, whose reality is fascist Spain, 1944.
I loved the design of the film, especially the faun itself and particularly of the Pale Man, who places eyeballs in the stigmata in his hands. We are very much in the territory of surrealists like Jan Svankmajer or the Brothers Quay.
Nevertheless, for me the experience was marred by its luxurious (and eventually deadening) brutality. It bothered me very much that a film that is so solidly for the importance of the imagination, and places such a high value in the purity and innocence of the child Ofelia can be so frank about its very impure lust for violence. I’m not talking here about the characters’ lust for violence, but the film’s itself.
It is important, for example, that we register what a sadistic monster the step father is by hitting us between the eyes with the kind of violence he’s prepared to dish out to partisans or even just those suspected of sheltering them when the children are out of view. Did we need to see him smash in the face of a suspected partisan with the end of a wine bottle in a long take? Possibly not, but at least a point was being made.
I thought this apparent strategy was clever. Shock the audience early and every suspenseful situation thereafter is filled with dread. We’ve seen what he is capable of and so we fear the same end for characters we have grown to care about.
But shortly after, writer/director Guillermo Del Toro seems to dispense with such bourgeois restraint and gives it to us in bucketloads. By the time I got to Capitan Vidal stitching up his own razored face in the mirror, I started to feel like I was watching a movie directed by Herschell Gordon Lewis. This was clearly a moment intended to create pandemonium amongst the teenagers in the back row, and it worked in my loungroom, let me assure you.
It’s not violence per se I object to, but the bad faith. I am very much in the minority here, since the film has received almost universal praise, but by the end of the film I felt like he was having a lend of me and I intensely disliked the sensation.