Welcome to FrockTalk, the web’s only costume-based movie review site. The goal of Frocktalk is to shed light on the magnificent artistry of costume design in motion pictures. Reviews on this site are written by working costume designers in the entertainment industry – people who know, better than anyone, what it takes to make it all happen. The focus of FrockTalk is not to comment on the big flashy costume dramas, but to call attention to the seemingly ordinary costume design work in film that silently and persuasively moves the audience toward understanding the characters. Costume design for motion pictures is an art form that deserves more recognition than it usually gets. Fancy, pretty costumes do not always equal effective, appropriate costumes. The art of the costume is in letting the audience know who the character is, before the actor even has a chance to open his mouth. Read on, and enjoy. ** CAUTION: ALL REVIEWS CONTAIN SPOILERS! **

Pan’s Labyrinth (El Laberinto del Fauno)

Review Date:  5-9-09
Release Date:  12-29-06 (USA, limited)
Runtime:  119 minutes (depends on foreign language version)
Period: 1944, Spain
Costume Designer:  Lala Huete

I don’t even know where to begin with this movie.  It is so incredible; it is a breathtaking achievement technically, and it is scary (and fascinating) as hell.  This is a fairytale, a fantasy film, a horror film, and it is gorgeous. It is not for children, by any means, so don’t even think about letting your kids see this film.  Pan’s Labyrinth has won numerous awards, including the CDG Award for the Fantasy/Feature category, and it handily deserves the accolades.  The costumes and the production design of this film are brilliant, and I am still reeling from the film as a whole – this is art, cinematic art, as it was intended!!

In its way, this film brings to mind Alice in Wonderland.  Here, you have a girl, Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), whose father has passed away in the war.  Ofelia is sent to the Spanish countryside, along with her pregnant and ailing mother (Ariadna Gil) to live with her mother’s new husband, the sadist “Captain” (an officer in the Facist army of Franco, played with ferocity by Sergi Lopez).  Ofelia doesn’t like the man, and the feeling is clearly mutual.

Ofelia is followed by a huge praying mantis/cricket (computer-generated, but well-done) that turns into a fairy and eventually leads her into an enormous labyrinth in the back of the compound where they are living.  There, in the underground realm of the labyrinth, she meets Faun, a ram-horned beast with milky eyes.  Faun tells her that she is actually a princess of the underworld, but that she will have to pass three tests in order to prove it, to be reunited with her father (the King of the underworld).

We don’t know if this sequence is real or part of Ofelia’s imagination – she reads a lot of fairy tales, and certainly has reason to want to escape, namely the Captain.  The Captain is a sociopath of a man, brutally beating, torturing and killing people who get in his way.  The Captain is primarily interested in crushing his enemies (the scrappy, wily freedom militia rebels, living in the nearby woods) in the cruelest way possible, and preserving his lineage (via the son inside the womb of Ofelia’s mother).  Nothing else matters to him.

The housekeeper Mercedes (Maribel Verdu) soon befriends Ofelia, and we learn (as Ofelia does) that she is assisting the rebels.  Ofelia’s mother grows weaker and weaker in her pregnancy, and she is treated by a doctor (Alex Angulo) whom we soon learn is also helping the rebels.

Ofelia passes her first test, throwing stones into a large toad’s mouth – YUCK!  You have to see it to believe it.  She retrieves a golden key from the frog, which comes in handy in her second test.  The second test is to go into the underground labyrinth and use the golden key to unlock a golden dagger.  Thing is, there is a feast going on, presided over by an eyeless, pale, saggy-skinned creature (The Pale Man), and Ofelia has strict instructions to not eat anything at the banquet.  Ofelia successfully retrieves the dagger, but slips up and eats a few grapes.  Sadly, two of her fairy companions lose their lives to the saggy-skinned creature, who gets up from the table and comes after Ofelia.  It is truly nightmarish.

The Faun gives Ofelia a mandrake root to put in a bowl of milk, and instructs her to place it underneath her ailing mother’s bed.  He instructs her to feed the mandrake (which twists and cries like a human baby) two drops of blood per day.  She follows his instructions.  Her mother’s condition improves.  The captain comes in one day to find Ofelia under the bed, and goes ballistic at the sight of the mandrake.  Her mother, furious that Ofelia has upset the captain, hurls the root into the fire, and promptly collapses, clutching her belly.  The doctor arrives.  The Captain tells him that, if faced with a choice, to save the baby instead of Ofelia’s mom.  The Captain banishes Ofelia to another building.

Ofelia’s mother dies, and the baby survives.  The captain is with the infant day and night, except when he gets whiff of a rebel uprising. He catches Mercedes in a compromising position with regard to the rebels, and detains her.  She fights with him, stabbing him, and escapes.  The Faun tells Ofelia to bring the baby to him.  While the captain is distracted, Ofelia snatches the infant and heads to the forest.  Meanwhile, the countryside complex is being attacked and bombed by the rebels.

Ofelia reaches the Faun in the forest with the baby in her arms.  The Faun tells her that in order for her to claim her title as princess, he needs the baby for a sacrifice.  Ofelia refuses to give the Faun the baby.  The Faun tells her that one of them must die, and she agrees that she will die in order for her brother to be saved.  Ofelia hears a noise, turns around, and is confronted by the Captain.  He takes the baby, levels a gun at her, and BLAM!  She crumples into a ball at the edge of the water well.

Mercedes, on the run with the rebels, finds the Captain fleeing the scene with the baby.  They surround him, as he is unarmed.  He hands over the baby to Mercedes, and they kill him.  Mercedes then finds Ofelia dead, at the well.  Ofelia’s blood slowly drips into the water.

Ofelia then finds herself in the underworld, approaching a man on a tall throne with a white flowing beard.  This is her father, the King of the underground.  To his right is her mother, beautiful, healthy and glowing on her own throne.  Ofelia has passed the final test, that she would not let innocent blood flow to save her own life.

There has been much discussion of the thematic elements of this film relating to the political, religious and social history of Spain.  Here is a great site that explains it in detail. It is very interesting, and the parallels, once explained, become quite clear.  There is so much derivative imagery in the film that bears discussing. Here is a fascinating interview with Director Guillermo Del Toro about some of the film’s thematic elements, including religion and politics.

But about the costumes…

First, the Faun.  When I learned about mythology and labyrinths, there was always a Minotaur at the center of a labyrinth – Minotaur being half man, half bull.  In Pan’s Labyrinth, it’s a faun at the center of the labyrinth.  Traditionally, fauns are half man, half goat, with a human torso, and the goat’s legs and behind.  Mr. Tumnus from The Chronicles of Narnia is a classic Faun, for example.  In Pan’s Labyrinth, the Faun of the Labyrinth (played by Doug Jones) is a creature unto himself – not really faun, not really Minotaur, but something other.

He has the oversized head and horns of a ram, but with long, spindly fingers instead of cloven hooves, and a skin texture resembling clumpy tree bark.  This faun was a costume not made by the costume department, but by the special effects department (sometimes referred to as the “creature” effects department).  The costume was glued on and painted on the actor every day, requiring five hours in the makeup chair.  Actor Doug Jones talks about the experience in an interview here.

The glory of this film is in the details.  Who would have thought to hybridize a faun and a Minotaur for such scary and spooky effect? These details are what give Pan’s Labyrinth its punch.  Director Del Toro was able to truly realize his vision, and it is nightmarish, freakish, and terrifying.  I cite the character of the Pale Man next, also played by Doug Jones.  This is another creature-effects costume, horrifyingly real in its texture.  Sagging skin, claw-like fingers, disturbing lack of eyes, blood-drenched mouth, this guy is beyond scary.

Even scarier is when the Pale Man pushes eyeballs into his palms, and then places the backs of his hands on his face, so that he can see with the eyeballs.  This is some serious creature/character design.  It is brilliant.  As a costume designer, you have to appreciate the cleverness of the eyeballs in the palms trick.  That is great design, no matter how dark and twisted.

The girl, Ofelia, wears mostly traditional, classic garments: little dresses with Peter Pan collars, cardigan sweaters, mary jane-esque shoes.  At one point in the film, her mother gives her a dress that she has made – it’s a special dress, emerald green, with a white pinafore.  Ofelia goes into the woods (wearing the dress) to give the stones to the toad.  When she approaches the tree where the toad lives, she sees thick mud everywhere, and gingerly removes the dress and pinafore, hanging it on a tree limb so it doesn’t get dirty.  Interestingly, underneath the dress she wears what looks like a dark olive green linen slip.  She crawls through the mud in this garment, and emerges completely covered in mud.  In putting on the special dress afterward, she muddies it, much to the dismay of her mother.

A word about the use of the color green.  It is my deep suspicion that the filmmakers used something called a “bleach bypass” process on the film in certain sequences.  In addition to this, I suspect that they used green filters and/or enhanced the green tones in the color timing.  We used the bleach bypass process on The Cooler to pop some of the greens in our film, and Pan’s Labyrinth has the same texture to it.  I suspect, pretty much would bet you $50, that they used the bypass process on Pan’s Labyrinth.  The shadows are so dark, the contrast so exquisite, and the greens popped so lusciously, I don’t know how else they would have done it.  This bleach bypass process has also been used in films like Saving Private Ryan, Se7en, and A Little Princess (directed by Alfonso Cuarón, who produced Pan’s Labyrinth).

When you watch the film, pay careful attention to the use of green – you will see it gain intensity in Ofelia’s costumes as she gets deeper into her “tests”.  Mercedes is also wearing shades of green, linking the two in their destiny.  Both Ofelia and Mercedes’ greens eventually give way to reds, something that is significant.

When the rebel fighters are attacked and many of them perish (when their blood is spilled), Mercedes shifts from wearing a green dress under her apron, to a blood red dress.  She stays in the blood red dress until the end of the film.  Similarly, when Ofelia has passed away and is resurrected in the underworld, her costume (silks, velvety textures, ornate layers) is blood red.  The end color – blood red – is the exact opposite, or complement, if you will, of the initial color.  There has been a transformation, a 180-degree swivel, in their arc, in their character.  I love it.  It’s subtle, and it’s powerful.  Linking Mercedes and Ofelia this way, using color, helps to underscore their spiritual connection throughout the film.

The rest of the costumes are pretty magnificent as well.  The Spanish Army costumes are perfect – pressed, clean, sharp looking, in a cold steel bluish grey.  In contrast, the rebels are a rag-tag bunch in earth tones, layers, lots of textures, dirty, rumpled.  The contrast could not be more distinct.

Sergi Lopez’ Captain is so sadistic, such a sociopath, that it is at times hard to watch.  Certain sequences were seen by this viewer through a veil of fingers over the eyes.  Yes, it is really that scary.  Again, it is not for the kids, nor is it for the faint of heart.

This movie is so mesmerizing, I could watch it over and over and still see something new every time.  It is really worth watching, and I hope that you can take some time to see it for yourself.

— KMB

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