I can’t think of any better example of the grotesque than in Guillermo del Toro’s 2006 film “Pan’s Labyrinth.” The plot of the film itself has the ambivalent characteristic of the grotesque, alternating back and forth between dark fairy tale and the after-effects of the Spanish Civil War. There are three particular scenes that contain numerous grotesque elements that I’d like to examine. Each scene involves a decent into the underworld or a lack of boundary between the body and the world. I will discuss each of these scenes, one by one.
The above scene involves a descent into the muddy roots of a tree to retrieve a key from a giant toad. The protagonist, Ophelia, is covered in mud and, with bugs crawling all over her, crawls through the roots. This represents the violation of boundaries between the human body and the natural world. The gluttonous, bloated toad lashes its mucous tongue at Ophelia’s face to snatch a plump bug, followed by a long, powerful belch. This is much in the style of Mikhail Bakhtin’s concept of the bodily grotesque, with the food imagery, grandiose body, and the transgression of bodily limits, with the tongue, mucus, and belch. The scene finishes with the toad ingesting magical stones, which makes it turn inside-out, expulsing all its innards through its mouth. This is the ultimate transgression of bodily limits, and the toad’s loathing of what it has accidentally ingested, according to Julia Kristeva , “is perhaps the most elementary and most archaic form of abjection” (2).
The scene with the child-eating monster includes many aspects that make it a terrifying and memorably grotesque scene. Once again, there is downward movement into the earth as Ophelia descends into the underworld. She stumbles upon an unresponsive creature perched on a chair, before an extravagant feast. The grotesque creature’s appearance occupies the ambiguous or ambivalent interval in our perception. Its body is difficult to comprehend. It has the overall form of a man, but its eyes are in its hand, it lacks a nose, it has demon-like claws, and its sagging skin and bony legs, combined with its zombie-like movements, give an overall impression that the creature is decaying. It occupies the space between living and non-living, as it is initially in a state of seemingly permanent trance. Through artwork in the creature’s lair, we learn that the creature is a consumer of children. Given its human-like form, it is even tempting call the creature cannibalistic, the ultimate betrayal of what we perceive as normal or acceptable. In the lair, there is a pile of children’s shoes piled up against a pillar. As Harpham (15) points out, a contradiction can create a gap in our understanding, producing the grotesque. We may conjure up images of Christmas presents stacked under a Christmas tree on Christmas morning, which completely contradicts the reality that the shoes are from the young victims the creature has consumed.*
The feast that lies before the motionless create contains rotting fruit with an abundance of grapes, perhaps symbolic of the carnivalesque harvesting of grapes (vendange) feast that Bakhtin mentions. Ophelia had been warned not to touch any of the food from the feast, but she gives in to her temptations, which awakens the creature. This tempting of the forbidden is much like Bakhtin’s carnival grotesque, which celebrates the unacceptable or abnormal.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a clip for the third scene, but will describe it. Out of the three scenes I’m discussing, the third scene could be considered the least gruesome, repulsive or scary. However, I found it to be the most unsettling. I remember when I first watched the scene, I couldn’t put my finger on why it made me feel uneasy, but I now know that it is due to the interval of the grotesque that Harpham discusses, (18) which aborts. In the scene, Ophelia’s mother is pregnant and has fallen extremely ill. A fawn instructs Ophelia to place a mandrake root in a bowl of fresh milk and two drops of blood under her mother’s bed. After being placed in milk, the mandrake root becomes alive, writhing in the milk bowl, and her mother instantly regains health. Sometime later, Ophelia’s stepfather discovers the root laying in pungent, sour milk. Ophelia’s mother confronts her and thinks her actions are due to childish, fantastical beliefs and she tosses the root into the fire, where it squeals and writhes in agony. Simultaneously, the mother suddenly gives birth to the baby and dies. First, there is the direct relation between the body and the natural world, with the survival and health of the mandrake root directly related to the survival and health of the mother and baby, as well as the placement of the root under the bed, once again complying with the trend of a downward or earthbound movement, like in the previous two scenes. This particular scene creates an extremely confusing energy due to multiple reasons: the simultaneous birth of the baby and death of the mother, the anomaly of what was once a seemingly normal mandrake root and, most significantly, the burning mandrake root, which we subconsciously associate with the burning of an infant. This is what makes the scene incredibly unsettling.
The three scenes I’ve discussed all contain different attributes of the grotesque. The film received a massive amount of critical acclaim and I think that it is a direct result of its employment of various aspects of the grotesque. I think that these three scenes definitely stand out and linger in one’s mind long after viewing the film. For anyone who hasn’t seen this film, I highly recommend it.
*I don’t want to be accused of plagiarism and I’m quite sure that this particular example already emerged in one of our readings or classroom discussions. I can’t locate the source. Could somebody please remind me of the source or context that this idea came from?
Bakhtin, M., translated by Iswolsky, H. (N.D.) Rabelais and his World, p. 1-59. 1968. Web. 11 Nov. 2015.
Harpham, G. G. On the Grotesque : Strategies of Contradiction in Art and Literature. Aurora, Colorado: Davies Group Publishers, 2006. Copy.
I keep your manhide soft., “Pan’s Labyrinth frog scene.” Online video clip. Youtube. 9 June 2011. Web. 11 Nov. 2015.
Kristeva, J., translated by Roudiez L.S. (1982). Approaching Abjection. In Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, p. 1-19. New York: Columbia University Press. Print. <Copied under permission from access copyright.>
Pan’s Labyrinth. Dir. Guillermo del Toro. Ivana Baquero, Sergi Lopez, Paribel Verdu, Doug Jones, Ariadna Gil, Alex Angulo. 2006. Film.
SaneelGB, “Pan’s Labyrinth clip.” Online video clip. Youtube. 6 Jan. 2013. Web. 11 Nov. 2015.