Continuing 2006's general lack of critical consensus, Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth was named the year's best film last week by The National Society of Film Critics, the country's highest regarded critical organization. Representing only the second victory for a foreign-language film in the past twenty years -- the previous victor was 2000's Yi Yi, still one of the decade's finest films -- the selection of Pan's Labyrinth makes obvious sense as one of the year's most visceral popular entertainments. Of course, Pan's Labyrinth is not simply The Lord of the Rings Mexican redux, though it is an elaboration of the cycle exemplified by Peter Jackson's trilogy and continued in The Chronicles of Narnia.
In fact, like these sources, del Toro's picture is essentially Christian allegory: when 12-year-old Ofelia (Ivana Baquero in a marvelous performance) sneaks a couple of grapes, she is prevented from finishing the three tasks set before her, and thus from receiving "eternal life." However, Ofelia is subsequently offered a second chance to complete the final task, wherein the titular faun Pan demands that she sacrifice the life of an innocent. Suffice it to say that Ofelia is this, though she isn't so fast to comply with the faun. Indeed, her family's housekeeper Mercedes (Maribel Verdú) warns her too be wary of these creatures, though she earlier tells Ofelia that she no longer believes in many of the things she did as a child. (The film presents a double focalization structure through both Ofelia and Mercedes.)
This prior admonition is particularly significant as its establishes the film's self-conscious logic: Pan's Labyrinth is a fairy-tale created expressly for adults, compelling its spectator to accept the veracity of a series of fantastic creatures. Importantly, del Toro's narrative refuses to delineate those sequences featuring these fictional beings and separate passages which resolutely occupy the real world. In other words, the adult spectator of Pan's Labyrinth does not need to rationalize their existence in the film, but rather to accept that as a narrative, as a fairy-tale, fairies, fauns and various other monsters are all permitted. Magic is real in the world of the film.
Ultimately, del Toro's narrative does affirm a separation between reality and fantasy, however, as Pan's Labyrinth is very much concerned with representing the truth of the world. That del Toro situates his narrative in Spain 1944 confirms his belief that reality is crueler than anything we could ever dream up. As such, Ofelia's fascist step-father is a far more terrifying villain than any of the creatures which populate her parallel world -- in our introduction to the scope of his brutality, Captain Vidal smashes a hunters face in with a bottle before executing both the gentleman and his father on screen. To be sure, Pan's Labyrinth features more than its share of sadistic violence, with the worst of it perpetrated outside the girl's fantasy world. For this reviewer at least, Pan's Labyrinth is superior to 2006's other high-profile torture pic, Jean-Pierre Melville's 1969 Army of Shadows.
In the end, Pan's Labyrinth represents not only a reflexive continuation of the epic fantasy genre and a straight-forward Christian allegory (completed by the Princess's reign in her father's kingdom -- the redemption for the cruelty of this world) but also a note of caution for its adult spectators: that they not blindly follow authority, be it the Captain or Pan. Del Toro presents this message in an essentially classical popular form notable for its masterful use of invisible wipes that along with the director's ever-mobile camera work, secures the fluidity of his hybrid world.
Likewise committed to a representation of fantasy that eschews any clear demarcation between reality and fiction, Michel Gondry's The Science of Sleep is in turns exceedingly romantic, heart-breaking, irritating and finally hopeful. With the exceptional Gael García Bernal and Charlotte Rampling as its star-crossed couple, Gondry's picture demonstrates a greater interest in -- and indeed a closer affinity with -- the visual arts' current specificity than does any semi-commercial film in a very long time. The fantasies of García Bernal 's Stéphane Miroux (a clear reference to surrealist master Joan Miro) take the form of a video art instillation, while the picture's comedy speaks to a Dadaist inspiration. In short, The Science of Sleep reminds us just how far cinema remains from the visual arts, for better or for worse.