As a child, Guillermo Del Toro’s Catholic grandmother tried to exorcise him twice. This was due to the fear of her grandson’s love for monsters. She may not have had the precognition that he would grow up to be one of the most celebrated Mexican auteur filmmakers in the world. From Cronos (1993), his stunning breakout debut, en route the haunting The Devil’s Backbone (2001) and his sublime masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), he has dipped deep into the genre of dark fantasy to shed some light into the lives of monsters.
His new film The Shape of Water is his most intimate and assured movie after Pan’s Labyrinth. Opening with a beautiful sequence of an underwater submerged house, it tells the story of a mute female janitor at a high-security government laboratory in Baltimore who falls in love with a humanoid-amphibian creature. The story is set in the era of the Cold War in the year 1962. There is a sense of dread and the fear of usurpation by the Americans and Russians of each other is spread throughout the film. In this, he shares themes with his previous works. Most of his films are set in the midst of wars. Be it the Spanish Civil War in the case of The Devil’s Backbone or Pan’s Labyrinth or the more passive but equally effective Cold War in this case. There are people who are affected by the larger canvas of what is happening in the background, but their actions in the story transcend the event and make them the bigger survivors in the universe.
The story of this movie follows Elisa Esposito (the great, tender Sally Hawkins) who works as a cleaning lady at a secret government facility. She lives alone in a rented apartment above a Cinemascope movie theatre. Her only friends are her next-door neighbour Giles (the wonderful Richard Jenkins), a closeted gay advertising illustrator who shares a parental bond with her, and her co-worker Zelda (the lovely Octavia Spencer), an African-American woman who also serves as her interpreter at work and her confidante. The facility receives a humanoid-amphibian creature in a tank, which has been captured from a South American river by Colonel Richard Strickland (the terrific Michael Shannon). Seeking to exploit the creature for possible advantages in the Space Race against the Soviets, General Frank Hoyt (Nick Searcy) orders Strickland to vivisect it. One scientist, Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), who is secretly a Soviet spy, pleads unsuccessfully to keep the creature alive for further study and, at the same time, is ordered by his Soviet spymasters to euthanise the creature. During this time Elisa begins secretly visiting the creature, feeding him with eggs, and forms a close bond with it. When she discovers the military’s intentions for the creature, she persuades Giles and Zelda to help free him. Though initially opposed to the plan, Zelda agrees and becomes involved. Hoffstetler discovers Elisa’s plot and chooses to help her and the escape becomes successful. What follows next is a deeply heartfelt and profound love story that transcends the boundaries of race, class, gender, ethnicity and most crucially, normative dualism.
What strikes me first and foremost about this movie are the two important characters, Elisa and the creature. Del Toro has made a crucial decision to have a mute girl to play the lead. Abused as a child, having her vocal cords cut, Elisa uses sign language to communicate. For the whole world, she suffers from a disability of silence but the creature is unaffected by that and forms an intimate bond with her. As for the heart of the movie, the creature itself is Del Toro’s love letter to the Gill-man in Jack Arnold’s ‘Creature from the Black Lagoon’ (1954). But he does not stop at just the simple creature-feature tropes but goes much beyond that. He presents the breathtaking 7-ft-tall, deep blue and green ‘Amphibian Man’ (as mentioned in the film’s credits), in his own words as, ‘an elemental river god.’ In the Amazon, he is worshipped as a god by the indigenous people. He has healing powers and can survive both within and outside water. But in the greed of civilisational progress, he is captured by the Americans and is experimented upon like a lab rat. His chief tormentor Colonel Richard Strickland views him as a freakish affront to God. He has an electric cattle prod which he has nicknamed as his ‘Alabama how-dee-doo’ and uses it to brutally torture the creature. In his worldview, such experiments with creatures of supernatural capabilities will give the Americans an advantage over the Russians in the Cold War. Michael Shannon’s character can be seen as a spiritual cousin to another Del Toro creation, Captain Vidal from ‘Pan’s Labyrinth.’ Both are military men who are the products of their imperial, totalitarian regimes and are willing to go to any length to fulfil their duties to their country as they feel that it is their moral obligation to do so. They are the real monsters, as they have no patience with foreign residents or anyone who dares question their place in the world. In the process they become blind to the existence of the ‘other’, in the case of ‘Pan’s Labyrinth,’ it is Ofelia and the Fawn and in this case, it is Elisa and the river god.
It is at this juncture, Elisa’s decision to save the creature becomes one of paramount importance. She articulates that, ‘When he looks at me, he doesn’t know I am incomplete.’ And even though the creature is as alien to Elisa as she is to him, due to the nature of their mutually mute selves, they create an indelible portrait of yearning for each other. What begins as the feeding of eggs, playing him Benny Goodman records on the gramophone and teaching him sign language, blossoms into one of the most touching love stories that I have ever seen. It goes beyond the notion of normative dualism because of its demonstration of love between two fundamentally different species united by their compassion. It does away with the tropes of people from different genders or from the same gender falling in love with each other. It dismantles the established societal norms as to what and how love should be. One might argue that it follows the line led by King Kong and Beauty And The Beast but I argue that it is more intimate than those films. For in the former, the movie ends with the death of Kong atop the Empire State Building and as with the latter, the power of love transforms the ‘Beast’ back into his human self. This movie disassembles these two tropes and makes it possible for two different species to live together in love.
In terms of performances, Sally Hawkins is outstanding as the lady who goes to all lengths to save her love. Despite her apparent disability, she has a steely resolve to make sure that she saves the person she loves. Michael Shannon is aptly terrifying as the military commander, continuing his streak of juicy villainous roles. They are supported by a solid ensemble of Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer and Michael Stuhlbarg. The much talked about underwater sex scene is a creation of lush beauty. A surprising, swirling dance to a golden oldie ‘And if I tried, I still couldn’t hide my love for you’ adds to the icing on the cake of this gem of a movie. Dan Laustsen’s luminous cinematography, Paul D. Austerberry’s immaculate retro production design and Alexandre Desplat’s subtle, swooning score give the movie its beautiful shape and sensitive soul.
Guillermo Del Toro has made a contemporary fairy tale with an all-encompassing belief in soulmates as eternal lifelines. In his Golden Globes acceptance speech for Best Director for this movie, he said, ‘Since childhood, I have been faithful to monsters. I have been saved by them and absolved by them because monsters I believe are patron saints of our blissful imperfection and they allow the possibility of failing and live.’ It sums up his life and passion. For this year’s Academy Awards, ‘The Shape of Water’ has been nominated for 13 Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director for Del Toro, both of which was won by Del Toro. Two of the three ‘Amigos of Cinema,’ Alfonso Cuarón and Alejandro Gonzales Iñárritu have already won the coveted golden knight for their wonderful contributions to cinema ala ‘Gravity’ (2013), ‘Birdman’ (2014) and ‘The Revenant’ (2015). And with this year’s win the Academy fulfilled the trilogy by giving the movie and Del Toro the Oscar. For he has made an intimate and transcendental love story with a giant beating heart.