Pan’s Labyrinth is a gorgeous film. It should be easy to get lost in the ethereal blue tones on the screen, the incredible sets, costumes, make ups, the iconic character designs. So many did already. It is almost universally loved for a reason.
And yet, I just couldn’t bring myself to care.
I have a weird relationship with Guillermo Del Toro. I adored The Shape of Water — but everything else I’ve seen from him left me indifferent. There shouldn’t be anything wrong with that. Not everything can be liked by everyone — even the most acclaimed directors certainly have people who can’t see anything in their work. You might think my favourite films are a bunch of garbage, and vice-versa. Art is such a subjective experience that it would be impossible (and frankly, really boring) for everyone to have the same opinion about it.
This is exactly why I usually don’t make a fuss about not liking acclaimed work. To each their own, right ? Only with Del Toro, it’s not as easy. Why ? Because his work is everything I usually love in cinema and storytelling in general. All I’ve seen from him so far shared a passion for fairytales and the darkness behind them, a will to show the good in the monstrous, the bad in the all too human. Add to this systematically beautiful visuals and you have nothing but things I love. And yet… It’s always the same thing. I try to get into it, then get exhausted of pretending by the last half hour. The worst part is when the movie is over. When I try to understand why I couldn’t connect with the film and just can’t come up with anything.
There’s no point trying to dissect Pan’s Labyrinth and desperately searching for an answer. I know that what I’ll find will only bring me more confusion. I know that this is a well-written film that intelligently brings together the horrors of fantasy with the horrors of reality. I know that there’s a lot to say about the different kinds of monsters depicted in the film, and that many great essays have already been written about them. I know that the entire cast delivers great performances. But I also know myself, and I know that while watching the film, I just truly didn’t care about any of that.
But the writer guilt, the one I’m so familiar with, couldn’t just let me accept that. Was I being a bad writer by letting subjectivity completely take over my reading of the film ? If almost every single critic wrote stellar reviews, and I was not only incapable of it, but also completely unable to back up my feelings with any sort of facts, then something must have been wrong with me, right ?
I think it’s easier to blame yourself than to face the truth: sometimes, feelings are really hard to decipher. And when they go against what is expected of you, they can be even harder to deal with. It’s by now more or less accepted that any type of criticism is opinion disguised as objectivity. There’s truly nothing fundamentally wrong with that. There is no single truth about a work of art, and it’s silly to think there should be. We do try to reach it, or at least some kind of consensus, through websites like Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritics, but even the 99% fresh risks to be disliked by someone out there. Art isn’t an exact science.
And just like any experiment, it can sometimes fail without us really knowing why. After spending hundreds of words trying to justify myself for doing nothing more than disliking a film, I’ve come to the decision that it’s probably fine. Does this mean every opinion I could indeed back up with facts in the past is now invalid ? Does this mean that every form of writing I’ve ever done is now a pile of subjective trash ? Does this mean there’s no future for me as a writer ? Of course, at first, I wanted to say yes. As I said, it’s easier to blame yourself than try to understand what is at first too hard to comprehend. But now, I’d say no. It just means I didn’t like a movie and didn’t really get why. No less, no more.
Of course, this is not a review one should read to know whether or not Pan’s Labyrinth is worth watching and why it is or isn’t. In fact, this probably isn’t a review at all. You didn’t learn much of anything about the film, just like I didn’t feel anything while watching it. I may never know why Del Toro is only perfect for me in theory. What I do know is that subjectivity, even the weirdest, most annoying kind, isn’t a crime. I’m glad people seem to make sense of the labyrinth — I’ll just have to accept I was never even given the key to the entrance.
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