Sleep No More: Guillermo del Toro’s Lullabies
Tinged in red – or crimson, shall we say – the Universal Studios and Legendary Pictures logos fly across the screen. Hovering above our heads and in the back of our minds, in a space where sonic beauty and horror will find comfort throughout the duration of the experience, is a lullaby. Floating in and out of the air, only lasting briefly, on settles in for an adult bedtime story, a glorious story woven from things past and present, and spun with excitement and tension by Guillermo del Toro.
Whatever his imperfections as a storyteller are, Del Toro nonetheless has a distinctive voice, one that while able to meld the classical and the new, isn’t self-consciously mired in a postmodernity, a hyper-intellectualism that would undoubtedly weigh it down. His bed time stories, films like Cronos, The Devil’s Backbone, Pan’s Labyrinth, and his most recent, Crimson Peak, recontextulize fairy tale and bedtime story archetypes and tropes, grounding them in a universality that’s mature and potent.
More specifically, his employment of lullabies in Pan’s Labyrinth and Crimson Peak stand out zeniths in his work, particularly through this lens. Bookending his films with music that it intentionally evocative of a particular style of storytelling, as well as a particular tone, allows del Toro to then juxtapose this against the harsh and heightened realities of his films: from the war torn earth of the Spanish Civil War to the decrepit foundations of Allerdale Hall.
Seeped in rules of three, passageways down dark paths, and a journey to realize one’s royalty, Pan’s Labyrinth (2007) is striking in its imagery: shimmering with darkness and light, death and birth, and war and peace. Del Toro, though, positions his film precisely to work as both a bedtime story unto itself, as well as a bedtime story within a bedtime story, reflexing his meta-diegetic muscles. As an escape from the trauma of the Spanish Civil War, and her unpleasant new life with her stepfather, a sadistic war captain, Ofelia begins to illustrate a world in which she encounters a faun who besets her several tasks, testing to see if she is the true Princess of the underworld.
The underworld which Ofelia constructs is one of catharsis, but it is rooted in clichés and tropes of traditional bedtime stories and fairy tales. The rule of three appears throughout the film: three tasks, three fairies, three women, etc. Ofelia is not unlike the mythic hero that Joseph Campbell details in his work. But the significance of this works beyond a mere theoretical one: it transforms the film as a whole into something more adult and confrontational. Ofelia’s tasks are composites of those taken from Ancient Greek literature, traditional fairy tales, but the violence in and of itself isn’t what strikes Pan’s Labyrinth as adult: it’s the stakes that these tasks hold in the real world that do.
For, outside of her underworld, Ofelia’s agency is precarious: her pregnant mother’s life is in danger and her stepfather’s abuse threatens them both. The urgency that Ofelia puts into every action, in and out of this underworld, is an extension of her urgency to survive. Guillermo del Toro’s films are haunted by ghosts of the past, of his past, but an aspect of the collision of past and present in his film is survival. Fairy tales as morality tales have that at their core: survival in spite of the evils in the world. The most explicit subversion of del Toro’s works is that his films are about survival after the story ends.
Thus, if the world Ofelia creates is out of catharsis, the lullaby that’s used throughout Pan’s Labyrinth is as much a part of that. Javier Navarrete’s “A Long, Long Time Ago (Hace mucho, mucho tiempo)” is at once ironic and earnest: it washes over the film, bleeding into every scene and composition like blood, staining the film. But it implicitly asks the question, as del Toro’s films do in general, if catharsis and coping are mutually exclusive? Coping connotes avoidance, catharsis connotes confrontation. Pan’s Labyrinth suggests that the two mix and blend, that they have a symbiotic relationship. It’s through the fantastical world Ofelia makes she finds strength.
The same is true of Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), another of del Toro’s storytellers, this time in Crimson Peak. “Ghosts are real. This much I know,” she says to the audience, a prelude of what’s to come. But, as the film makes explicitly clear, ghosts are real inasmuch the power we give to that metaphor, to what degree we invest in manifesting the past as present.
The studio logos glow, the light of the crimson screen illuminating the audience’s faces, and as they pass across the screen, an unidentifiable lullaby composed by Fernando Velázquez fills the theater. Overtly recalling Jack Clayton’s The Innocents, whose film began with nothing but a black screen and a young child singing “O Willow Waly”, Crimson Peak’s ghost story can be reduced to its eerie simplicities or elevated to its examinations of class and status. The duality that lives in Crimson Peak is emblematic of the duality of bedtime stories and their various functions: cautionary stories, escapist pleasures, and their utilities.
Edith’s story hinges on a metatextuality: the film we are witnessing is a story within a story, and the tale Edith tells about ghosts is itself a story. While Pan’s Labyrinth sigs into two layers, that Crimson Peak does three elevates the “real life” stakes for Edith: from her father’s death to her move to Allerdale Hall to her relationships with Sir Thomas Sharpe and Lady Sharpe, and furthermore, the real life stakes of Edith as a storyteller.
The maturity of del Toro’s fantasies is in the subversion: not only are these films grounded in an emotional realism, but these films doubtlessly use storytelling as tools for their own use. Bedtime stories often appear as self-contained, fourth wall intact. But del Toro, within the worlds of his films, knocks them down and shows his characters using the fables to confront tragedy and cope with it. Del Toro shows his characters taking control of the stories, utilizing them for their own purposes. Something soothing becomes a weapon and shield.