Director/Coscreenwriter: Guillermo del Toro
By Roderick Heath
Guillermo del Toro’s oeuvre has long come in two strands: the wistfully poetic splendour and infernal evocations of his Spanish-language films, Cronos (1992), The Devil’s Backbone (2001), Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), and the gleeful, geeky spectacle of his Hollywood work, including Mimic (1997), his two Hellboy films, and Pacific Rim (2013). What’s unified both hemispheres of del Toro’s work even is his plain, fervent love of the fantastical, his belief in its worthiness and capacity to bear up powerful emotions and connect with a point of the mind at the edge of shared awareness. 2015’s Crimson Peak saw del Toro trying to unite these two strands in a film that proved a luscious but lumpy effort, high gothic romanticism and old-school melodrama melding uneasily with florid supernatural showmanship. The Shape of Water, his latest, is less an attempt to fuse these two modes than a fully-fledged attempt to make one of his Spanish-language works in Hollywood, borrowing tropes with equal zest from pop culture lore of the mid 20th century, the archives of fantastic literature and surrealist art, fairy tales, and internet, fan-penned, slash-fic erotica. Del Toro signals his credo in a delirious opening sequence in which heroine Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) dreams of being submerged, her apartment flooded, fish wiggling through dancing light patinas, belongings floating in languorous beauty, voices sounding muffled through the water, slowly drawing Elisa back to wakefulness.
Elisa is mute, and communicates in sign language. She lives over a movie theatre in downtown Baltimore in the early 1960s, next door to a Giles (Richard Jenkins), a gay commercial artist who’s become a steadfast friend. Her only other real friend, Zelda (Octavia Spencer), works with her as a cleaner in the OCCAM Aerospace Research Center, a grandiose den of quasi-official experimentation. One day, Elisa and Zelda are privy to an unusual sight, as a large tube containing some kind of living being is wheeled into a room prepared with an open tank as a kind of makeshift habitat. Intrigued by the contents, Elisa touches the tank, only for a hand to slap against the glass from within. The two cleaners soon encounter government agent Strickland (Michael Shannon), the man who captured this bizarre specimen from its South American home where, he reports, it was worshipped as a god by tribes there. Later, the cleaners see Strickland stumble out of the creature’s room with two of his fingers gorily severed. Assigned to clean up the bloody mess, Elisa and Zelda retrieve Strickland’s fingers, and Elisa catches sight of the creature through a glass screen, beholding a strikingly coloured and muscled amphibian humanoid. Struck not only by the creature’s pathos but its similarities to herself as a nonspeaking creature desperate for sensible contact, soon she’s sneaking into the habitat to feed boiled eggs to the curious and wary being and play records to him.
In much the same way that The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth meditated upon Spain’s troubled past, The Shape of Water casts its mind back to a time in American history at once recent but also retreating to the fringe of collective memory, a time of jarring disparity between the flashy, technocratic splendours of the burgeoning space age and racial strife, a time that promised so much and now stirs a twinge of regret in lost illusions. Del Toro links this echoing past with the very stuff of his fantastical lexicon, formative creative influences and dream provokers glimpsed on movie and TV screens and read between covers churned together with the psychic landscape of the past. History plays out at times barely registered by the workaday characters drifting through a landscape, as when Elisa goes to work with the fires from riots blazing in the background, and at other times wilfully drowned out, as when Giles anxiously tells her turn over the TV from news reports on civil rights demonstrations and happily retreats into old Alice Faye musicals instead. One totemic image comes early on, as del Toro notes Zelda and Elisa conversing as Zelda dusts down a colossal jet engine. His tale of the little people who are adjuncts to great designs is boiled down to this perfect piece of iconography, dusted nonetheless still with a sense of the dreamlike, of ridiculous Sisyphean tasks and worship of twisted metal gods.
Strickland, by comparison, fancies himself the perfect avatar of American go-get-’em bravura and fortitude of will. Properly introduced to Elisa and Zelda as they clean the OCCAM men’s room as he lays down the cattle prod he uses to torture the fish-man before taking a leak in the urinal without touching his dick to establish his rigorous self-control, Strickland has a picture-perfect family he anxiously wants to move to a better city. Offering Shannon as implacable villain again feels like a highly unimaginative bit of casting, especially as Strickland, representative of the whitest of white bred authority, an Almighty-invoking avatar of septic squareness ignorant of all interiority, feels similar to the role he played in the TV series Boardwalk Empire. And yet it’s also a wise move, as Shannon can play such a creature in a manner that evokes underlying neuroticism and neediness so intense it almost renders him sympathetic even before indulging behaviour that makes him utterly despicable. Strickland is depicted as inordinately proud of his efforts to prove himself the exemplary American, buying a green – sorry, teal Cadillac in a droll scene in which he readily falls for a salesman’s spiel and claims his right to the essential status symbol. He’s also a patronising racist and sexist, who finds himself taken with Elisa, making a play for her sexual attention in wolfish fashion, and enjoys torturing the amphibian when he has it at bay. Del Toro makes no pretence to offering Strickland as a realistic character, but existing as it does in a plain fantasy, he is del Toro’s evil queen or wicked witch, the totemic figure of everything wrong with the era’s self-delusions.
The digits Strickland lost to the fish-man are surgically restored but the graft refuses to take and he’s left with two steadily rotting fingers whose steady degrading to black stumps gives del Toro a mordant device to illustrate the gangrenous state of aspects of the super-duper company man. A cringe-inducing sex scene sees del Toro sarcastically painting “normal” sexuality as obscene, Strickland screwing his wife Elaine (Lauren Lee Smith) with ruthless enthusiasm, clapping his hand with black blood leaking out over her mouth to muffle her attempts to complain. Del Toro interestingly revises his patient indulgence of institutions exhibited in the Hellboy films and Pacific Rim, where the dens of government experimentation and arsenals, with their labyrinthine corridors and gargantuan yet obscure fixtures, housed swashbuckling weirdos and stolid functionaries in relative harmony. Here, the facility is den of imperial arrogance infiltrated by social cast-offs and the disadvantaged, as well as foreign influences. The predominately black and Latino workforce of cleaners and dogsbodies in the OCCAM facility gain their little moments of peace and relaxation in avoiding the cyclopean eye of the security cameras, taking cigarette breaks in the blind spots for the cameras, a throwaway detail that nonetheless germinates into Elisa’s realisation need only retrain the cameras to get the amphibian out of his den.
As Elisa forges her amity with the amphibian, a scientist who’s been assigned to understand the creature’s physiognomy, Dr Hoffstetler (the inexhaustible Michael Stuhlbarg), sees her but does not report her, because he has his own secret: he’s a Russian agent (real name Dmitri, as he reveals in an affecting aside), employed by a spymaster posing as a diplomat, Mihalkov (Nigel Bennett). But Hoffstetler’s higher loyalty proves to be science, as he tries to argue to both of his nominal masters the necessity of keeping the amphibian alive for study, only for both to decide the creature should be killed. US military bigwig Gen. Hoyt (Nick Searcy) wants the creature’s biology closely examined, and Mihalkov states, “We don’t need to learn – we need to stop the Americans from learning.” So Hoffstetler elects to aid Elisa as he realises she’s planning to bust the amphibian out, after she’s already drawn Giles and Zelda into helping her. The breakout succeeds, after Hoffstetler intervenes and gives a guard about to arrest Giles a dose of the lethal injection he was supposed to give to the amphibian, and they manage to escape without leaving any sign of their identities for the wrathful Strickland to track.
The official inspiration here is one close to the hearts of most fans of classic science fiction and horror film: Jack Arnold’s Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) has long stirred frissons with its image of a grotesque yet curiously charismatic humanoid forming an attachment for a lovely human female who prefers, in that film, the attentions of two primates who barely seem that much more advanced. The connection between male sexuality and bestial impulse isn’t new – to quote a quip from Mystery Science Theatre 3000 concerning another tatty monster, it’s how all teenagers see themselves. Del Toro had even ventured down this path before on Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2009), where the fish-man Abe Sapien romanced an ethereal elf princess to her unblinking openness, as both were citizens of a magic world indifferent to the fear of the unique known only be humans. Plainly del Toro didn’t work the idea out as far as his twisted mind could there. Like another film that saw the light of day in English-speaking film markets this year, Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Smoczynska’s loony-tunes The Lure (2015), del Toro evokes Hans Christian Anderson’s original The Little Mermaid story – a very different beast compared to the homogenised Disney take – and even parses it through similar impulses to Smoczynska as a postgenre hash of expressive impulses, up to and including musical flourishes.
One way del Toro signals his peculiar bent, and his deep feel for cinema in all its glories, comes in a small detail involving the movie showing at the movie theatre isn’t something cool like a ’50s noir film or one of del Toro’s beloved monster movies but Henry Koster’s forgotten religious epic The Story of Ruth (1960). There’s a faint but definite gesture her in the direction of Byron Haskin’s The War of the Worlds (1953), which made show of Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah (1949) screening at the outset, invoking homiletic glow of religious parable and Biblical dimensions to the ensuing Armageddon. Strickland repeatedly uses the story of Samson as his mission statement, only to find out he’s mistaken his own role in the parable. Del Toro runs with another notion encoded in Creature from the Black Lagoon, the idea that understanding different forms of life could give an edge in future adventures into space. In Arnold’s film this idea is deployed instead as justification for vivisection and exploitation of something beautiful and incredibly rare, the pretentions of the space age another guise of colonialism. The Arnold film posited its gill-man as a representative of the untameable in nature, in much the same style as King Kong (1933), powerful and baleful and constantly seeking to breach the new citadels of progress – in short, exactly like the maddening sexuality that vexes both Arnold’s characters and del Toro’s.
Del Toro seems to have in mind not merely the familiar rosters of sci-fi and monster movies from the ’50s, but also a string of movies from the 1980s, including Steven Spielberg’s E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), Fred Schepisi’s Iceman (1984), and John Carpenter’s Starman (1985). Those movies stand in many ways as repudiations of values expressed in the older breed, with distrust in authority and cold science, and ecologically-minded sense of the preciousness of strangeness (del Toro isn’t the only filmmaker of late to cast his mind back to those films, as last year’s Midnight Special, also featuring Shannon, leaned heavily on their influence). The Shape of Water can be described without too much stretching as a romantic variation of Spielberg’s famous work, although his contemporary, grounded evocation of the childlike has been swapped out for del Toro’s ardour for the retro and the dreamily erotic. Del Toro might be turning a smirking nod to the TV series Alf when it comes to a gross gag involving the amphibian developing an appetite for one of Giles’ cats. The movies of Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro also seem prominent in his thoughts. One bathroom-flooding sequence pays overt tribute to their Delicatessen (1992), whilst Elisa and Giles are highly reminiscent of characters from Jeunet’s Amelie (2001), although, fortunately, del Toro doesn’t indulge his whimsy to the same degree as Jeunet did when left to his own devices: his mischievous streak, his love for throwing his audience the odd curve ball in jolts of violence and weirdness, keep bubbling insistently to the surface.
Some qualities, running like a vein of gold through The Shape of Water, seem indebted to a more rarefied brand of movie dreaming than del Toro’s genre film loves. The touch of having Elisa and Giles live over a cinema, the sounds of the epics and fantasies echoing up through the floorboards, is reminiscent of the more overt surrealism of Leos Carax’s Holy Motors (2012). Hell, there’s even a faint flicker of 8½ (1963) in Elisa’s hallway dance moves. Where del Toro eventually steers this annexation of familiar material is in his literal and figurative deflowering of the traditional metaphorical sexuality of the monster movie with relish, as he finally has Elisa and the amphibian shacked up in her apartment after the successful escape. Elisa keeps him immersed in her bathtub, as he can only breathe out of water so long, obliging her to mix table salt in with the water to keep him from suffocating, and even with these measures his physical condition begins to decay. Del Toro has already noted Elisa’s habit of masturbating in the bath as part of her daily ritual, and she sports unusual marks on her neck that look a little like the gills on the amphibian’s neck, a sign that the orphan girl might be the lost heiress to some race of merfolk, a notion reminiscent of another melancholic fairy tale of lost souls and marine life, Curtis Harrington’s Night Tide (1961). Giles can’t help but remark on how beautiful the amphibian is when he first sees him, and Elisa’s attachment to the creature quickly steps over the line into erotic interest which she first shies away from but then, after trying to settle down for the night on her sofa, throws caution and clothes to the wind, marches into the bathroom to join the creature for a night of passion.
There’s a marvellous joke following this scene for anyone who’s ever watched many a classic monster movie like Creature from the Black Lagoon and wondered why these monsters never seem to have sex organs, as Elisa mimes the opening of the amphibian’s surprise package to Zelda’s mixed repulsion and fascination. Del Toro also links one form of “forbidden” sexuality to another as Giles’ situation as an ageing gay man forms a counterpoint to the central tale: Giles, who laments the stranger’s face that stares at him from the mirror, is anxious to return from his greying exile to his former workplace in an advertising agency but, whether by getting old or letting slip his orientation, he remains unwanted there. He forms a crush on a handsome young waiter (Morgan Kelly) in a coffee shop, forcing Elisa to follow him in and buy pies neither of them can stand eating for the sake of gaining his daily look at his idol. Sadly, Giles compounds humiliation after being fobbed off by his former boss by making an equally unsuccessful and bruising move on the young man. Del Toro links his two outside men as his camera slides from the window of Giles’ apartment to Elisa’s where the amphibian stands in a mimicking pose, matched in their bemusement at their place in this unforgiving world. But Giles also finds himself beneficiary of a bizarre talent the amphibian has. The fish-man has a bioelectric system that pulses as if he’s wearing a suit made of the aurora, and this seems to be the source of a healing power he can wield. This gift repairs wound he accidentally made in Giles’ arm, and stimulates the growth of hair on his head, allowing him to throw away his toupee.
There’s a lovely bounty of humanity in The Shape of Water in this sort of thing it almost makes you ache to think how little of it there is some other movies these days. The fecundity of Elisa and Giles apartments are carefully wrought and textured by del Toro and art director Nigel Churcher as an abode of escape from the shiny, chrome plated super-machines and gritty realities both beyond their walls. Del Toro’s feel for way the apparatus of the past lingers in the dreamscapes of the mind long after epochs fade is part of the texture here. Del Toro has one of the best eyes in contemporary film, and his attentiveness to the little worlds here communicates in an argot of another age, particularly the swirling, futurist décor that permeates the OCCAM facility boldly grasping at an age when science and art can cohabit on the level of engineering dreams, but usually with the malignant Strickland hovering before them. The cold, clean geometries of Strickland’s new Cadillac wield the same whiff of antiseptic modernity, at least until Giles accidentally slams his van into it during the escape from the facility. By contrast, Del Toro’s early 1960s Baltimore is as exotic as his Victorian era was in Crimson Peak, and linked unexpectedly with John Waters’s Hairspray (1987) in its setting and use of Baltimore as an exemplary American city in a time of swift and unnerving change, not quite as blankly indifferent as a megalopolis like New York or Los Angeles but hardly village-like either, beset by unseen borders and a sense of hovering between nothing and nowhere. And, like Waters’s film, it’s concerned with people usually thrust to the margins of life suddenly and boldly claiming their place in the world.
Perhaps this likeness is why, when del Toro abruptly swerves into a musical sequence, it doesn’t feel at all unexpected. Elisa indulges a fantasy shot in black-and-white and gleaned from old Astaire and Rogers movies, where she can suddenly not only talk but sing, and launches into a dazzling dance number with her humanoid beau. Del Toro takes up the old canard about musicals, that their characters break into song when there’s no other way to properly express and contain their emotion, and not only transplants it into an unexpected setting, but links it with his own effervescent love affair with the fantastical genres, a love the revolves around the same notion, the transformative potency of heightened expressive modes, the certainty mere reality cannot contain our manifold selves. The notion of language as something as much physical as oral, mooted throughout as the amphibian learns to communicate through Elisa’s sign language, is also rendered here in a radically different fashion, the need to move, to transcend the limits of ordinary physicality and become fluid as a dream. It’s also a moment that highlights the way The Shape of Water, whilst assembled with many an archetype, trope, and cliché, wields impudent originality in the way he patches them all together. Del Toro counterbalances this with his relatively straight-laced portrayal of Hoffstetler’s anxiety, provoked by the looming malignancy of Strickland on one side and his boss who might be planning to have him killed on the other. This subplot builds to a sequence that reminds me del Toro has a gift for nastiness as potent as his romantic side, as Hoffstetler is saved after being shot through the face by a KGB goon by Strickland who’s been following him, only for the American agent to hook his fingers through the gaping wound in his cheek and drag him around by it before torturing the amphibian’s location out of him (shades here of the infamous stitching scene in Pan’s Labyrinth).
Equally charged, if not as violent, is Strickland’s subsequent confrontation with Zelda, visiting her in her own and terrorising her and her husband Brewster (Martin Roach) in a disturbingly intimate way. Del Toro shoots Shannon like the reincarnation of Boris Karloff he’s long threatened to become, deep grooves in his face picked out by deep shadow and gruelling sweat mixed with rain pouring off him like the natural translucent ooze of an actual beast from the deep, the angry white man as monster. I wouldn’t blame Spencer if she never wanted to play another period menial again, but she aptly embodies del Toro’s theme of nascent rebellion as she weathers this storm and moves to both warn Elisa of Strickland’s warpath and chews out her lazy and cowardly husband at the same time. Jones has been del Toro’s instrument of vital physicality in his movies since Mimic. His performance is expert in imbuing the amphibian with traits both recognisably intelligent and animalistic, and it feels like a just reward for him to at last play romantic lead, even if he is still swathed in latex. What’s perhaps more surprising is that Hawkins, who’s always a deft and inventive performer, nonetheless matches him and dominates the film without speaking a word, purely through intensity of expression and gesture. The film’s waterfront climax is perhaps a little disappointing in its lack of inventive staging or action, even if it does at last deliver a nicely nasty punch line to Strickland’s hand-of-god pretences. But the very last images of underwater love and transcendent transformation finally thrust del Toro’s labours into a rarefied zone, a rapturous embrace of the intimately surreal, and slipping the prison of the flesh.