Last night, Guillermo Del Toro’s latest film, The Shape of Water, took home Golden Globe awards for Best Director and Best Original Score.
Amid an evening air crackling with a spirit of social justice, it seemed a fish out of water1: a fairy tale among peers witnessing to the horrors of war (Dunkirk), constitutional crisis (The Post), patriarchal dystopia (Handmaid’s Tale), and patriarchs who actually weren’t so bad (Darkest Hour). However, after closer consideration of the film’s themes, it is a story that addresses numerous social issues including gender dynamics, LGBT issues, race, fishpeople, and more.
It’s a good movie. Go see it. But since I’d seen it so recently, I decided to celebrate by revisiting what many consider Del Toro’s finest work, Pan’s Labyrinth, noted recipient of numerous awards including the illustrious “Blockbuster Bend Westside Employee Pick”2. Eleven years later, while the computer-generated special effects have aged as well as they always seem to, the film remains fantastic and you should have all seen it by now. Proceed at your own risk.
My adolescent enchantment with the film survived revisitation, as Del Toro’s signature style tilting between eerie whimsy and bracing violence proves an effective and abiding one. But as the wide-eyed wonder of my initial viewings had somewhat faded, I was left to engage with the film a bit more critically. And I arrived at one question: how about that ending? Thus, this entire frivolous exercise3.
The ambiguous denouement is an immortal narrative technique. One’s personal opinion of its use is another thing entirely: beautiful ambiguity left up to the viewer’s imagination and debate, or half-assed storytelling cop-out? You decide! In this particular instance our choice is thus: either our dear Ofelia has passed her ordained test, proving her divine essence intact to return triumphantly home; or her visions of grandeur are mere fever dreams conjured from a brain rapidly deprived of blood, a final feat of escapism at the end of a life lived among the pages of fairy tales rather than grim reality. So, which is it?
This task puts us in an unenviable position. Taking the Logicians Cudgel to such fanciful fiction is truly the lot of the ur-nerd, the Neil Degrasse Tyson muttering alone in the back of the theatre “well, actually”-ing the latest Star Wars. Luckily, every cohesive story operates on some level of its own logic, and therein lies the thing. We aren’t here to debunk the plausibility of each fantastical flora and fauna4, but we can capably examine and use the magic present throughout the film to reach a fairly solid verdict. And, in doing so, we arrive at the comforting conclusion that our exsanguinated heroine has indeed transcended this mortal plane. Here’s how we know.
Though we are at times skeptical of the very existence of the titular faun, let alone his intentions, there are a few concrete reasons to believe that magic, and thus the film’s ending, are quite real. Even as most of Ofelia’s adventures and experiences with the faun and various adversarial monsters remain completely unverified and could be reasonably explained as professional-grade make-believe on the part of our protagonist, there are a few that have tangible effects on real-world outcomes as experienced by other characters.
First, the mandrake root does indeed immediately cure Ofelia’s mother once implemented, and does the exact opposite as it is indelicately disposed of following its discovery at the hands of Vidal. Even the Doctor unwittingly vouches for the miraculous efficacy of this decidedly alternative herbal medicine, so that’s as good as settled. Well science’d. A round of kombucha for everyone.
Second, if the magic that animates the film were mere imagination, how did Ofelia manage to escape her improvised holding chamber under lock and watchful armed guard? Her stealth abilities achieve mixed marks throughout the rest of the film, making it even more undeniable that she had assistance getting her Houdini on. Even as her would-be rescuers return to liberate her, they discover her self-made escape route drawn on the wall in magical chalk, though they know it not.
So, unique among all other whimsical enterprises from the film, these two occurrences are represented as incontrovertible fact, witnessed and experienced by the other characters, and alone are enough to verify the internal logic of the film’s magic. And thus, the safe return of nuestra querida5 Ofelia. But let’s dispose of a quick counterargument anyway, because we’ve come this far.
At the very climax of the film, Ofelia stands arguing with the the faun at the center of the labyrinth, and it seems that her salvation might be slipping away. This fear of ours is compounded when the drugged Vidal stumbles upon our heroine seemingly pleading with a whole bunch of nothing. Oh snap. Now not only are we worried about the faun helping her, we fear that she’s crazy, the whole thing has been in hear head, and oh wait, she’s about to get shot anyway. So what are we to believe?
No te procupes 6, dear reader. It should come as no surprise to us that the man most devoid of, well, everything good, would be the least equipped to perceive our magical friend. It is quite possible that, by the wickedness of his heart, magic and wonder are completely inaccessible to Vidal, much like empathy, kindness, and an appreciation of beauty beyond the shallow appearances so dear among fascists. Lest we forget, there has been an ancient and unexplained labyrinth at the edge of his property the whole time and he hasn’t even displayed the dull spark of curiosity enough to explore it.
Furthermore, we have reason to believe that these creatures with whom Ofelia so freely interacts are the domain of children and children alone. This no-grownups rule is a common apparatus throughout the history of fairy tales from around the world 7. And if we remember carefully, we catch a knowing wink from the caretaker Mercedes when Ofelia asks if she believes in fairies:
“No. But when I was a little girl, I did. I believed in a lot of things I don’t believe anymore.”