Guillermo del Toro is one of those directors who’s signature aesthetic style of his productions is something I have a tremendous personal adoration for. His more commercial productions including the Hellboy films and Pacific Rim were simple, yet fun and well-executed for what they were. But while they may have attracted me to his visual style initially, what had garnered a much more profound fascination in me for del Toro’s work were his more ‘artistic’ productions that delve into certain historical backdrops and deftly intertwine and manifest certain conflicts and anxieties of said historical period with his own oddball blend of atmospheric dark fantasy and gothic horror.
Previous films to incorporate this style include del Toro’s Spanish fantasy/period pieces, The Devil’s Backbone (2001) and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), and it’s just as evocatively conveyed through his most recent offering, The Shape of Water.
Set in 1962 Baltimore in a small town Americana-stylised backdrop of the Cold War, a period of paranoia and social prejudice, the film centres on a mute woman named Elisa (Sally Hawkins). She lives in an apartment above a movie theatre with her only friends being her tenant, Giles, a down-on-his-luck gay advertising artist (Richard Jenkins), and her co-worker/interpreter, Zelda (Octavia Spencer) who both work at a US military containment facility as janitors. Elisa soon discovers that the facility had received a strange amphibian humanoid creature (Doug Jones) that had been captured from a South American river and was frequently subjected to torture by the ruthless Col. Strickland (Michael Shannon). Elisa would later develop an unusual bond with the creature by communicating with it through sign language and music and would eventually fall in love with the creature as her relationship with it had transcended spoken dialogue. Both Sally Hawkins’ and Doug Jones’ wordless performances are intensely expressive, particularly with Doug Jones being a veteran make-up man in del Toro’s previous productions, including the Faun and the Pale Man in Pan’s Labyrinth and Abe Sapien in Hellboy (in case the latter wasn’t familiar enough!). Despite their relationship lacking spoken dialogue, it is ironically communicated touchingly and powerfully in marked contrast to Col. Strickland’s awkward mode of communication with Elisa and Zelda, as well as contrasting with his lack of sincere communication with his own family and even with his wife during sex.
From the onset, the opening line of the film subtly misleads the audience into believing the monster within the film was the villain of the story with the line; “A tale about love and loss and the monster who tried to destroy it all”. As with The Devil’s Backbone, the opening scene (in this case, being that of a dreamlike submerged apartment), establishes its primary motif of water through lush cinematography and elegantly melancholic atmosphere, further enriched by a colour palette of mesmerising seafaring shades of cyan, aquamarine etc. Various symbols, including water and eggs and even Elisa’s gill-like scars make up significant markers of her world as they symbolize her developing relationship with the amphibian creature as well as foreshadow her eventual transformation and rebirth by the very end of the film. Other, more poignant visual details in the film communicate it as del Toro’s personal tribute to the art of cinema itself, visually realised through Elisa’s lonely, yet dreamlike apartment above a picturesque movie theatre with an arched window that takes inspiration from the 1948 British drama, The Red Shoes.
The “monster who tried to destroy it all”, of course, was the very “human” monster in the form of Michael Shannon’s Col. Strickland, who is portrayed as a corrupted version of 1950s ideal of masculinity. He is shown to be a chauvinist as he quietens his wife during sex, and his masculine materialism is symbolically represented through his purchase of a cyan Cadillac that he was persuaded to buy by the owner who called him a ‘man of the future’. The eventual destruction of said Cadillac could be seen as a comical takedown of 1950s masculine pride and aforementioned materialism, just as the Colonel’s pride was scarred after the creature was stolen from the facility. Colonel Strickland’s virile masculinity and obsession with how he maintains himself could also be considered a nod to del Toro’s previous masculine antagonists, Jacinto from the Devil’s Backbone and Captain Vidal from Pan’s Labyrinth, and could even be compared to archetypal materialistic, masculine horror characters like Patrick Bateman from American Psycho who similarly obsesses over his appearance and material belongings, and also holds what he perceives to be “traditional moral values”.
The social issues of the 1960s intertwine with the fantasy of the creature in this film, such as the anxieties of the Cold War, as the creature was originally meant to be exploited for the US to gain an advantage over the Russians during the Space Race, and was frequently referred to as an ‘asset’ or an ‘affront’ as opposed to being treated with any sign of humanity in his confinement. Other issues illustrated in this film are communicated through the struggles of the artist, Giles, who, as a gay advertising artist, regularly deals with rejection of his work due to the introduction of photography and was met with open hostility from the cashier at the pie restaurant after touching his hand.
If Pan’s Labyrinth could be read as del Toro’s darker re-imagining of Alice in Wonderland, then The Shape of Water could also be potentially interpreted as his darker re-imagining of Beauty and the Beast with a hint of Spielberg’s E.T the Extra-Terrestrial. In an old 1950s monster flick, one would typically expect a hyper-masculine character like Strickland to be the lover and saviour of the female lead from the ‘evil’ monster. Similarly to Beauty and the Beast, The Shape of Water subverts this notion, and showcases the real monster through humanity’s unthinking prejudice and fear and presents both the physical ‘monster’ and the female lead, as mutual lonely outcasts from society, united by their common lack of a physical voice. A further nod to Beauty and the Beast could be observed through the black and white dance scene towards the end of the film, which, in addition is the only scene where Elisa speaks. But the film eventually becomes a reversal of the Beauty and the Beast formula when, instead of the ‘beast’ being resurrected as a ‘human’, the ‘beauty’ in Elisa becomes reborn in the sea as a creature herself, no longer bound to her former life. This is also similar to Pan’s Labyrinth’s ending when Ofelia dies in the centre of the maze and is resurrected as a princess in her afterlife, freed from the real horrors of the Spanish Civil War.’
Some of the film’s shortcomings include its lack of originality, as it seems to take a little too much themes and concepts from other productions, like the aforementioned Beauty and the Beast and the Creature from the Black Lagoon in terms of romance as well as movies that involve sympathetic bonding with a captured animal/creature like Free Willy etc. The monster itself, while given several entertaining moments, was not given as much focus as a character, despite being perceived as a ‘human’ subject and, towards the end in particular, was treated as more of a plot device, a problem shared with the fantastical subject in Pan’s Labyrinth, where the Faun and other fantasy creatures were treated more as MacGuffins that propelled the plot forward rather than given much characterisation. Col Strickland, as strong as Michael Shannon’s performance was, was also not particularly deep or 3 dimensional and could simply be read as more of a one-note masculine tyrant, again, a problem shared by Jacinto in The Devil’s Backbone and Capt Vidal in Pan’s Labyrinth. Otherwise, The Shape of Water, as another breathtaking example of del Toro’s trademark visual style and grotesque, yet enrapturing take on dark fantasy is a hallmark of contemporary cinema that truly deserves all the accolades it had received.