Someone is going to write a book about The Shape of Water. There is a depth to it, an inundation of meaning and metaphor which, I suspect, is far beyond my powers of perception on a single viewing. I’ll mention what I noticed, and give an indication of the care which co-writer / director Guillermo del Toro has put into this film, and of the issues it touches upon. This will be far from definitive, though, I’ll have to go see it again!
If you saw the grace with which he accepted his Golden Globe for Best Director, you’ll know that Guillermo del Toro has nothing to prove. He hasn’t made a bad film in 25 years (yes, even Mimic is better than its reputation suggests). People who know and love movies, know and love Del Toro. He is, in every significant meaning of the word, an auteur of the 21st century. But he hasn’t broken through to that stratum of film-making where Joe and Josephine Public know his name.
That’s about to change.
He is known as one of the ‘Three Amigos’, along with fellow Mexican filmmakers Alfonso Cuarón and Alejandro González Iñárritu, yet he, unlike they, has not won the Oscar for Best Director. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that, with The Shape of Water, that isn’t going to change because, despite the tidal wave of love the film has received, and despite drowning in award nominations from the other awards out there; I feel that the film is a bit too bold for the Oscars. He’ll get the nominations, and he’ll win a lot of the other awards, but I doubt he’ll win the Oscar.
I could be wrong about The Oscars, I hope I am. What a night that would be if, on Sunday March the 4th, a maker of monster movies stands there with a gold statue, a reward for not selling out. It’s happened before, with Peter Jackson back in 2004, and what a night that was.
So, no, Guillermo del Toro certainly isn’t trying to go mainstream. “So, my next film is a love story between a woman who doesn’t speak and the Creature from the Black Lagoon”. Oh, that old chestnut. No, he isn’t courting mainstream acceptance by pushing the Oscar-bait buttons, he just wants to tell the stories that have meaning for him; and he has always had sympathy for the monsters, for the weirdoes, for the people who exist beneath the surface.
The Shape of Water tells the story of Eliza (Sally Hawkins), who is a cleaner at a top secret military establishment, in 1962. It’s the sort of place which, in later years, will host a red man with horns and his explosive girlfriend. Being a cleaner, Eliza is invisible to the scientists and military types busy doing their nefarious deeds all around her. She is also mute, which means she is not only not seen, she’s not heard. The other cleaner is Zelda, played by Octavia Spenser (in a variation of her excellent turn in last year’s Hidden Figures), and she’s also doubly invisible because she’s a cleaner and, in a time of open, unchallenged racism, she’s black.
|Defiant in their otherness ... Sally Hawkins and the always-impressive Octavia Spenser.|
Eliza’s gay best friend (played warmly by Richard Jenkins) is Giles, who is also an outsider, because he has no gay friends and, increasingly, is unemployable because he is a commercial artist in a time when photography is taking over from hand-painted adverts.
He gets to give us a little bit of voice-over at the beginning (since Eliza can’t) which, although not in so many words, tells us that this is a fairy tale, set once upon a time. It's a fairy tale about 'otherness'. The film’s opening moments also open up the possibility that the whole film might be a dream. Quite literally a wet one.
|With echoes of 'Amelie' and 'The Hudsucker Proxy' and the visual stylings of Tim Burton ... Everything is green and submarine.|
Before the story and characters have had time to get hold of you, the look of the film does. The sets are choking on detail, from the clutter on the shelves to, particularly, the use of colour. This reflects the way the film starts under water, aquamarines and greens run throughout. Green is everywhere, from the keylime pie Giles eats, and the Jell-O he paints, to the water the creature sits in, and the walls of the institute and Eliza’s hallway. All shades of green.
Only the briefly glimpsed cinema screen (Eliza lives above a cinema) is in full colour. The TV, which pumps out movies from the past is, of course, in black and white. Giles much prefers the old movies, with their romanticised vision of the world, to the real world of social unrest and political tension he sees on the news.
Del Toro always makes his films with this rich, cluttered production design (go away and look at The Troll Market in 2008’s Hellboy II and tell me otherwise) and here he excels himself. He has even allowed himself a few subtle nods to other film-makers. The rich greens and reddish-browns put me in mind of nothing so much as Jeunet & Caro’s Delicatessen (1991) and City of Lost Children (1995), although that could be influenced by the inclusion of a very Gallic accordion on The Shape of Water’s soundtrack. There is also a sense of Coen films from the 90s too, most particularly Barton Fink (1991) and, The Hudsucker Proxy (1994). The two penthouse offices in the Hudsucker building shared half a circular clock-face, here Eliza and Giles’ rooms above the cinema share half of a semi-circular window. It’s a small detail, but hardly likely to be co-incidental.
|Eliza and Giles, two sides of the same circle. Different in so many ways, yet similar in so many more.|
So, we get to see a secret government installation at the height of the paranoia of the Cold War, from the point of view of its cleaners, who remain unimpressed as the military uniforms and white coats scuttle back and forth on their ‘important’ business. The cleaners are on-hand to mop up the blood when the military’s latest trophy bites the hand of the man trying to torture it. The creature in question, simply referred to as ‘the asset’ is a “South American River God”. It is, fairly obviously, the eponymous Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). The Gill Man is played by Del Toro regular, Doug Jones, who performed similar duties as the aquatic Abe Lincoln in the Hellboy movies; but here performs entirely in mime, and still manages to make The Gill Man, sympathetic yet alien, vulnerable yet dangerous.
Eliza instinctively feels sorry for the creature, in its chains, with its wounds inflicted by its now-eight-fingered torturer, Colonel Strickland (played with typically uncomfortable menace by Michael Shannon). On her lunch break, she lets herself into the lab (she’s a cleaner, she’s allowed through all the doors) to spend time with the creature. She offers him her eggs. Boiled, you understand. She then (rather improbably) brings a record player in and plays him jazz. She teaches him some basic sign language. They who cannot communicate with others, can communicate with each other.
|Everyone in the film feels trapped, in one way or another. The only way to cope is to ignore our differences and celebrate our similarities.|
She learns that the creature is to be killed, so decides to act. She rescues it - in a scene which is all-too reminiscent of the same sequence at the end of Splash (1984). Only, this comedic break-out isn’t the climax of the story - it’s the half-way mark. It’s really the beginning of Eliza’s relationship with The Gill-Man, not its culmination.
Sally Hawkins’ central performance is wonderful. She manages to communicate pathos and understanding as well as passion and stubbornness, equally well. It would have been so easy to infantilise this mousy mute woman, but Del Toro doesn’t want that, and Hawkins succeeds in making her a complex, compelling, defiant woman.
I was impressed by the way this film barrels along, no scene too long, no line of dialogue wasted. Then I learned that Del Toro’s co-writer is Vanessa Taylor, who has had a lot of experience in TV, weaving several narratives together, keeping those narratives moving. Suddenly the pace of the film made sense. It doesn’t feel rushed, but it does feel like there’s a lot going on. A lot of that will be down, I suspect, to Taylor.
Everyone sees what they want to see in The Gill Man. The authorities see something to hate and fear. The scientists see something to study and understand. Eliza simply sees someone who, like her, can’t talk and who, like her, is damaged and frightened. The delicate, self-pitying Giles, sees someone who, like himself, is a creature of the past, not the future. “Maybe we’re both just relics,” he sighs.
There is a subtext of classical myth which runs through the film, particularly relating to the Bible. The film playing in Eliza’s cinema is The Story of Ruth (1960), one of the more obscure Biblical epics. We are told that Eliza was a foundling, discovered by a river (the proximity of bull-rushes is not disclosed). Strickland tells Zelda the story of the travails of Samson, after he was betrayed by Delilah, tells of how he tore down the temple and killed himself. (He doesn’t mention that the temple in question was dedicated to Dagon, a god who was half-fish, half-man). He also crudely asserts that the ‘asset’ is not human because man was made in God’s image and The Gill Man, despite walking on two legs, doesn’t look human; it doesn’t look like him. This is as good as stating that he doesn’t consider the disabled Eliza or the black Zelda to be human either, since they don’t look like him.
|Thickening its mix of myth and metaphor, The Shape of Water also offers us an outsider's view of the Biblical stories that percolate through our culture.|
Don’t let all the fairy tale imagery and mythic dialogue fool you into thinking that this is not a film with any contact with the real world. What sets it apart from, say, a Tim Burton film (a director who shares this rich visual style) is the fact the Del Toro’s characters are recognisably adult. They have the type of grown-up problems and desires that rarely surface in a fantasy film. Eliza masturbates in the bath (the same bath in which she later hosts her fantasy man ... make of that what you will) and the one scene we see Strickland at home, demonstrates the crudeness of his relationship with his wife.
The Shape of Water clearly states that it is set in 1962. I always think it takes a couple of years for a decade to find its identity so, you could say, that 1962 was the last year of the 50s. That was the time when America was confident and conformist, kicking-out Communists and conquering space. But 1962 was the year when things began to change:
Marilyn Monroe, that symbol of 50s innocence and perfection, died. The Cuban Missile Crisis happened and, let us not forget, it was the final full year the Kennedy presidency. The Hollywood studio system was collapsing because (as we see in the few scenes in Eliza’s cinema) movies were playing to empty houses, as everyone stayed home and watched their TVs. America was on the brink of collapsing into the chaos and confusion of the late 60s and 70s, a time when, as a country, it no longer had any idea what it was.
It is a time when the past was turning into the future. But it wasn’t to be the future America expected. Strickland’s son talks about burying a time capsule at school, and everyone having jet-packs in the future. Strickland, himself, falls for the hype and buys himself a new Cadillac when he is told he is “the man of the future” (ironic, for a man who is such a throw-back). The ‘Jell-O’ ad that Giles is painting, bears the strapline ‘The Future is Now’ (another reference to the Hudsucker Proxy clock, by the way). The future is ever-present, yet the mindsets of all the men in the institute are very-much bedded in the past.
|Michael Shannon gives us another of his chilling studies in toxic masculinity ... Another man whose only skill is sharing his confusion and misery with others.|
When Strickland is introduced, he is pissing, marking his territory. He carries a phallic electrified cattle-prod, with which he tortures The Gill-Man with no apparent aim in mind, save to make the thing suffer. In reality, he’s simply asserting his superior masculinity. He seems relatively untroubled by having had two fingers bitten off because it doesn’t threaten his masculinity, as he tells his superior officer, General Hoyt, “I still have my trigger finger and my pussy finger”. But, as you would expect from Michael Shannon, he brings a complexity to the man, letting us see that his aggression disguises how he is haunted by the morbid fear of failure, which drives all such men. Strickland’s story is a parable of destructive, toxic masculinity and, as such, he makes this film surprisingly contemporary.
Doctor Hoffstetler (the always-reliable Michael Stuhlbarg ... I guess Johnny Galecki was busy) is the guy who, in a lesser film, would be the villain. He is, after all, the most easily-identifiable enemy, being a scientist and Soviet spy. But he also has a conscience. He is deeply uncomfortable at Stickland’s showboating, not to mention his brutality; so has no hesitation in helping Eliza liberate the creature. Like the Gill Man, he is an alien awaiting extraction. This Cold War subplot gives the film a greater resonance than the love story between mute girl and mute fish alone would have had.
|Michael Stuhlbarg, offers a different, more complex vision of patriotism in a time of paranoia. Despite its very obvious historical trappings, Del Toro's film is very much a warning about today.|
General Hoyt, as effortlessly played by Nick Searcy, represents the other side of the coin. He is as American as the stars and stripes. He is, as he insists people take note, a five star general, which is to say he’s as high ranking as they come; but he is under no delusions about that flag. He tells Strickland that America is an illusion. “We sell decency ... As an export. We sell it cos we don’t use it.” He is fine with the show of brute force this implies. Hoyt also, very calmly, informs Strickland that, should he fail to retrieve ‘the asset’, he will find himself in “a different universe, a universe of shit” where Hoyt will make Strickland “unborn, unmade, undone”. That’s unusually archaic language to use, as though Hoyt were claiming the powers to reverse the work of God.
This does the job, though. It motivates Strickland. Like Hoffstetler, he has something in common with the Gill-Man, he is suffering; his fingers have been reattached, but not well, and they’re rotting away. Like the Gill-Man, he is slowly dying.
Over in Eliza’s apartment, she puts The Gill Man in her bath, and waits for the rains to come and fill the nearby river, so he can escape into the sea (I guess she can’t drive him to the actual sea). Of course, she is hesitating because she wants to spend as much time with him as possible. In a scene which I very much doubt would have found its way even into the script, let alone the finished film, if Del Toro had made this movie with a big studio; she fills the room with water, strips off and joins him for a little underwater bestiality.
Then, after this, just when you think the film has no more surprises up its sleeve, Eliza gets her own fantasy song and dance routine.
This could all have been so very silly; but the commitment of the cast and the film’s political, social and racial conscience ground it; the crowded mise en scène enriches it; and the intelligence of the script elevates it.
This is not a simple film. Del Toro’s dénouement reclaims the iconography of the 50s monster movie, it fulfils the promise of its mythical, Biblical subtext and it subverts and analyses its fairy tale origins.
This is a film people will be talking about and writing about for some time. There is much more text and subtext to be discovered and understood. I shall be returning to see it again. Heck, I may even write that book.
Dir: Guilermo Del Toro
Script: Del Toro & Vanessa Taylor
Dur: 123 mins