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Material Girl in the Escher Room


by Jessica Elsaesser

While watching Jim Henson’s Labyrinth (1986), it’s important to remember that things aren’t always what they seem, and you most assuredly can’t take anything for granted. Following the enchanting young heroine, Sarah, (Jennifer Connelly) through the labyrinth, one encounters an endless slew of puppeteered obstacles. As a whiningly petulant adolescent, Sarah wishes her baby brother Toby into the arms of the Goblin King, Jareth (David Bowie.) In order to rescue Toby from the horrific fate of becoming a goblin babe, Sarah must travel through the treacherous labyrinth; a maze fraught with vital decisions that will ultimately lead Sarah on a journey to womanhood, that is, the Goblin City. As Sarah struggles against the capricious manipulations of Jareth, little does she realize the overlying battle between fantasy and reality, between the dramatics and misdirection of youth and the responsibilities of adulthood. Sarah is caught between two maternal figures, (notably, the only female characters in the film, outside of Sarah) her absent mother, and her “evil” stepmother (Shelley Thompson). Sarah’s biological mother is a mouthpiece for the childhood Sarah clings to, and the stepmother a malevolent force compelling Sarah to grow up, to be more responsible, go on dates. Sarah’s desire for things to remain the same is symbolized by her controlling disposition, (the necessity for Lancelot the teddy bear to remain in his designated cubby) as well as her wardrobe, (the pasteboard crown and Toby’s nightcap) a symbol of Sarah’s immaturity painful in its blatancy, as the baby’s cap unexpectedly fits, in more ways than one.


The first song of Labyrinth’s highly inferential score features David Bowie’s insightful lyrics, “Don’t tell me truth hurts, little girl, ‘cause it hurts like hell. But down in the underground, you’ll find someone true.” This initial reflection on the escapist qualities of Sarah’s fantasy, which allows her to avoid the harsh realities of an advancing physical maturity, is an essential theme of the film. As Sarah falls into various traps of the labyrinth, she stumbles further and further away from this fantasy, past the helping hands, into the Bog of Eternal Stench, from the bubble masquerade into the junkyard, and finally, for Toby in the Escher room. Following each of these physical descents, Sarah finds a new understanding of herself and reality. The significance of the final fall is that Sarah chooses to make the leap, excising Jareth and the illusion he represents. The romance between Sarah’s mother and the Jareth look-alike in Sarah’s scrapbook has left Sarah both emotionally stunted and seeking to imitate her mother’s literal and figurative roles. Jareth is the manifestation of Sarah’s need to transfer her affections from her father to other men, her dream-like combination of sex, possessiveness and domination. Jareth is frightening because for Sarah, the advent of sexuality is an attacking beast, owl’s claws, a snake’s fangs. However, as the snake’s threat fades into a badly printed, appropriately 80’s scarf, so does Sarah realize that Jareth’s masculine power is also subject to her will.

Hoggle and Jennifer Connelly in a candid moment

The first of various creatures that Sarah meets, who will both help and hinder her progress, is Hoggle. This endearingly ugly dwarf will provide many accurate observations throughout the course of the film, but these will be largely overshadowed by his comic appearance and persona. As Sarah enters the labyrinth, Hoggle, exemplifying his role as the wise fool, cuts right to the core of Sarah’s faults, “you know your problem,” he says, “you take too much for granted.” Now, this statement could be read as merely a vindictive pot shot at Sarah’s indecisiveness, but following her dramatically painted lamentations, which feature herself as a slave under the cruel treatment of a “wicked stepmother,” Hoggle’s remark becomes a valid social commentary on the self-absorption and materialism of generation X. As Sarah makes her way through the labyrinth’s intricate twists and turns, Jareth and his cohorts celebrate their assumed victory within the castle.


Towering above the goblins, Jareth displays an ultimate authority and blatant sexuality in his Victorianesque ruffles and tight-fitting breeches. The song, “Dance Magic Dance,” addresses the fate of baby Toby, but also that of an ambiguously romantic interest, presumably Sarah. He seems to view Sarah’s position as a pitiable but necessary ordeal, perhaps even the trite, ‘lesson to be learned.’ As if to prove this point, the following scenes focus on Sarah, and her frustration at the labyrinth’s “unfair” methods. She is forced to choose one of two doors, both defended by similarly exasperating guards; one of which always tells the truth, and the other who always lies. In solving this riddle, Sarah is forced to rely upon her intelligence, rather than her idealistic sense of justice or cosmic compensation. Upon realizing her success, Sarah quite literally takes one step forward and one step back; she becomes aware of her own autonomy, but simultaneously acquires an arrogance, “it’s a piece of cake,” which lands her imprisoned in the terrible black oubliette. Hoggle reappears here, as a foil for the materialism he had previously accused Sarah of. The obviousness of Hoggle’s jewel pouch as a symbol speaks for itself, as does the significance of Sarah’s relinquishing her plastic bracelet, in order to barter a guide through the labyrinth.


When Jareth appears to Hoggle and Sarah, he is in many ways shattering Sarah’s final barriers of false confidence and self-righteousness. In response to her litany, “it’s not fair,” Jareth alters the physics of time in his role as a God-figure, replying, “you say that so often. I wonder what your basis for comparison is.” From this point on, Sarah acquires an infinitely more benevolent and adult demeanor; she has a moment of enlightenment while arguing with Hoggle, pausing to reflect, “no, it isn’t [fair.] But that’s the way it is.” Almost immediately after this revelation, a wiseman offers his advice, which is at best, incoherent. But while his vague, contradictory sentiments don’t get Sarah any closer to the Goblin City, she peels off yet another layer of materialistic value by giving away her ring.


As Sarah begins to realize her ability to harness masculine power, she refers to Hoggle as a friend, exercising her own newfound power through emotional and bodily pretenses at possession. Similarly, Hoggle exhibits a jealousy and skepticism upon meeting Ludo, Sarah’s new “friend,” and threat to Hoggle’s developing maleness, which requires Sarah’s full satisfaction. The beast, Ludo, represents Sarah’s capacity to move beyond appearances in favor of those higher themes of love, companionship and loyalty. Ludo displays all of these attributes; embodied in slow, limited verbalisms that are reminiscent of those lovingly ignorant “gentle giant” characters whose greatest strength is physical force. Ludo allows Sarah to express the nurturing qualities that accompany her blossoming womanliness. Despite Ludo’s size, he is easily frightened, and as a result, Sarah becomes more confident in her capacity as a mother figure. When Ludo disappears, she immediately experiences a sense of abandonment and fear, calling out for Hoggle’s help. Hoggle has developed a strong emotional attachment to Sarah and a desire to be worthy of her. When Jareth teasingly promises to turn Hoggle into a prince, should Sarah ever kiss him; despite Jareth’s clear sarcasm, the dwarf’s expression is that of desperate hope. This kind of phallocentric schoolyard taunting over a young girl would usually indicate feelings of self-consciousness and yearning on the part of the bully, however, between a misshapen dwarf and the Goblin King, this subtle behaviorism is even more difficult to detect.


The film also briefly explores the negative consequences of anti-materialism with a slew of dancing marionettes known as Fireys. This “wild gang,” quite literally lose their heads in the search for a good time; plucking off body parts and rejoicing in the freedom of having “no problems, no suitcase, no clothes to worry about, no real estate or jewelry to hang [them] up.” And while these nearly identical creatures seem to exemplify the mob mentality, the Fireys serve as a warning to Sarah, that “you’re only allowed to throw your own head.” The Firey’s hilarity soon descends into something closer to insanity, and the weightlessness of having no cares beyond the rules of their mindless game reaches a frightening peak in their desire to “saw off” Sarah’s cumbersome limbs. Here, Hoggle’s rescuing of Sarah reveals his loyalty to their friendship, and his concern for Sarah’s well being. This commitment compels Sarah to return the affection and in turn, bind Hoggle to her permanently by kissing him. In adolescent terms, this could potentially lead to social exile, epitomized by the hilariously stinky Bog of Eternal Stench. This fear of never being able to enter the realm of one’s peers, is central to the greatest threat the bog poses, that is, upon stepping into the Bog of Eternal Stench, “you’ll smell bad for the rest of your life.” Sir Didymus, the pompous and adamant bridge guard, seems immune to the smell of social anxiety. He is, seemingly, a “grown-up,” who has become so set in his ways that their logic is of no consequence. Didymus quickly responds to Sarah’s nearly complete feminine power and intelligence, as well as the virile strength of Ludo that she expertly wields.


The oblique sexual tension between Sarah and Jareth transcends the father/daughter power relationship in the masquerade. The poisoned peach was supposed to serve as a distraction, a means of placing Sarah back under Jareth’s control. He, however, appears to be the one weakened by the encounter, presumably by Sarah’s exudation of beauty and womanliness, as opposed to the na´ve young girl he had first encountered. Jareth is in many ways a shadow cast by Sarah, reflecting her desires and fears, the worm inside the peach, the corruption behind the opulence of the ball. Human figures promenade around Sarah and Jareth, eerily playing at being goblins with masks that resemble death’s-heads and distorted faces. Upon being abruptly dumped into the junkyard, Sarah can only recall a searching feeling as the terrifyingly persuasive garbage woman attempts to fill this space with possessions; she is filthy and horrific, as the apparition of a homeless woman might appear to a child, and bent nearly double by the pile of “treasures” heaped on her back like a shell. Here Sarah faces not only the choice between the real and the imagined, but also the importance of objects verses personal relationships. Where before she had wished Toby gone because of a stolen teddy bear, Sarah now realizes that her belongings are junk in comparison to losing her baby brother.


Reunited with her loyal friends, Sarah conquers the goblin army in an ecstasy of clanking helmets and ridiculously clumsy goblins. However, upon entering the castle, she realizes the necessity to face Jareth as an equal, unaided by outside forces. Within the Escher-esque maze of stairwells, Sarah seeks out Toby, whose innocence and vulnerability she has passed through all of Jareth’s corruptions to preserve. Here Jareth again serves as a reflection of Sarah, as she runs along the “top” of a flight, he walks along the “bottom,” finally breaking through the plane with a well-edited swoop over the ledge, where he confronts Sarah with her mirror image. The final dialogue between Sarah and Jareth expresses this; Bowie sings, “I…I, can’t live within you.” Here Jareth presents Sarah with his definition of generous; his willingness to fulfill the role, the fantasy, that she wanted. He says, “I have turned the world upside-down, and I have done it all for you! I am exhausted from living up to your expectations of me.” The final scenes of Labyrinth end with a satisfying closure, both to Sarah’s maturation and a completion of the cycle from her first recitation of the line “you have no power over me,” to its ultimate meaning of assured womanhood and disillusionment. However, the fantasy has not been completely abandoned; Sarah’s childhood friends and illusions are there when she needs them, as is Labyrinth, to provide nostalgia, magic, and an escape from reality, or, at the very least, dancing puppets and toilet humor.

Bowie's Goblin King and Connelly in a tender moment

All photos c. 1986 & their parent studio / text c. 2005 Jessica Elsaesser

C. 2013 - Acidemic Journal of Film and Media - BFG LCS: 489042340244