Thursday, December 14, 2017

An Intricate, Beautiful Thing: Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water

Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones in The Shape of Water.

Last month, when I attended Guillermo del Toro’s exhibition At Home With Monsters at the Art Gallery of Ontario, one of the things that impressed itself most strongly upon me was the filmmaker’s fascination with otherness. The weird, the unsettling, and the macabre have always had a presence in his work, but his more sensitive artistic tendencies are expressed through his fondness for the freaks and outcasts of the world – those deemed to be somehow “other” than the rest of us. It might not be readily apparent in a filmography full of graphic violence and disturbing imagery, but a deep vein of compassion runs through del Toro’s oeuvre, especially for those who seldom receive it from society. The Shape of Water is by far his most compassionate film, celebrating otherness so directly and so proudly that it seems wondrous he managed to get the thing in front of general audiences at all.

This is a movie that everyone should see, but its extremely limited release might make it difficult to get this beautiful story in front of the eyes of those who would most benefit from seeing it. Here in the winter of one of the darkest years in memory is a bright, vibrant gift from one of our greatest living storytellers, a point of hopeful light around which everyone can huddle for warmth. Del Toro abandons the smoky Gothic affectations of Crimson Peak for a cool industrial aesthetic to tell the story of Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a sanitation worker at a government facility at the height of the Cold War who falls in love with a creature (Doug Jones) imprisoned there. Though visually icy, with algae-green and ocean-blue colour timing that make the whole film feel like it takes place underwater, The Shape of Water beats hotly with passion, eroticism, and thrilling energy. It’s the work of a filmmaker in his prime, condensing his myriad influences and interests into a singularly brilliant work that showcases his growth and maturity as an artist. I would say it’s del Toro’s Jackie Brown, but at this point I think that might even be doing him a disservice.

Del Toro has been fascinated with the Universal Monsters his entire life, and the similarities between Shape of Water’s sensual fish-man and the Creature from the Black Lagoon are clearly intentional. The aquatic outcast known colloquially as “Gill-Man” shares more than just a scaly appearance with Jones’s unnamed “Asset” – they’re both part of a legacy of tragic exiles that stretches not just into del Toro’s other films (from Pan’s Labyrinth to Hellboy) but into the rest of the Universal canon, too. There’s as much of Frankenstein’s monster in del Toro’s creature as anything else, especially since his relationship with the mute Elisa is based on the same sort of hidden sensitivity and silent tenderness that gave Karloff’s famous creation his depth and pathos. Elisa, unable to speak, falls head over heels for this creature because unlike everyone else in the world, he’s unable to discern the ways in which she’s incomplete, seeing her only for the sweet, passionate person she is.

Richard Jenkins and Sally Hawkins in The Shape of Water. (Photo: Kerry Hayes/Twentieth Century Fox)

Compassion runs through the film like a river, flowing from the endless wellspring that is Hawkins’s beaming performance as Elisa, gently influencing a supporting cast who are each as remarkably human and memorable as the next. Elisa’s friends – like her fellow custodian Zelda (Octavia Spencer), supportive through both mundanity and tragedy; her next-door confidante Giles (Richard Jenkins), a closeted gay artist whose generous spirit is harshly tested; and Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), an unlikely ally under even more unlikely circumstances – are the kind of great characters who prove their heroism by stumbling inexorably towards the right choices, the choices that put others before themselves, the choices that are hardest to make and still made anyway. Each struggles with their own hang-ups and faults, and yet their willingness to help Elisa is instinctive and unquestioning, born not of pity, but of a clear-eyed love for who she really is beneath her lifelong silence. Only one character stands alone in this sea of empathy, a black hole of selfishness and insecurity: Strickland (Michael Shannon), who rules over the facility with the pettiness and arrogance of a medieval king. He is like the great villains of del Toro’s previous films in the purity of his evil, representing a threat that is endemic to that same brand of mythic storytelling: complex, yes, but also primal and simple, and horrifyingly, disastrously human. Strickland’s need for control over his “Asset” is not the result of scientific curiosity, or militaristic fear of the Russian enemy, but a dark drive for personal glory that is really just an excuse to dominate those around him. Shannon is typically wonderful in the role, using the intimidating asshole persona that’s defined his mainstream career to tap into something more tragic, more subtle, and more illuminating than those kind of roles usually suggest. Elisa makes Strickland the moment she sees him, identifying him as yet another hurdle she must overcome in a life that has shown her more than her fair share of injustice. She isn’t afraid of him at all – but we are.

The theme of injustice is a natural partner to the film’s legacy in monster movies, and its fascination with otherness. The Baltimore of 1961 depicted in the film is a place of prejudice and small-mindedness, in which a woman like Elisa would be ignored even if she had an actual voice. She is surrounded by fellow outcasts – a black woman, a gay man, a foreigner – and it’s no mistake that the force opposing these people is a white Christian man. The Shape of Water is, at its heart, a romance – and a gorgeous, sexy one at that – but it also feels like an exorcism of its director’s long-repressed feelings about the world we’re all living in. Since the beginning of his filmography, del Toro’s works have shone a light on his most personal fears and anxieties, using his boundless visual imagination to expunge these feelings and assuage the scared little boy hiding within his brain. The Shape of Water feels like the work of a man who has processed these feelings, and now turns his attention outward – suddenly seeing a world that is no different in its cruelty and selfishness as the one he recoiled from as a child. Of course Elisa falls in love with an unidentifiable fish-creature. What good have the men of this world done for her, or for anyone else?

It’s typical of del Toro that I feel I don’t even need to mention the film’s utterly captivating special effects (brought to stunning life by Toronto’s own VFX wizards at Mr. X), its lush Golden Age-inspired score by Alexandre Desplat, or its immaculately detailed production design. As obsessive as he can be about surface detail, del Toro is one of our best filmmakers because these trappings are secondary to the profound emotional resonance and enthralling cinematic execution of his stories. The Shape of Water is his sweetest, loveliest, weirdest, most intelligent film, and it’s clear that he’s just now hitting his stride.

– Justin Cummings is a narrative designer at Ubisoft Toronto, and has worked as a writer, blogger, and playwright since 2005. He has been a lifelong student of film, gaming, and literature, commenting on industry and culture since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade.

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