There’s an interview with Guillermo Del Toro from a while ago in which he briefly discusses the complications with genres in his films, and that to confine any of his films to only one genre would be a method of homogenisation: “For me, Cronos is and it isn’t a vampire movie; Devil’s Backbone is and it isn’t a ghost story; and Pan’s Labyrinth is and it isn’t a fantasy film.” It’s this same idea of “is and isn’t” that drives The Shape of Water too, with stunning effect: it is and isn’t a monster movie, it is and isn’t a romance, it is and isn’t a period piece, but it is certainly one of my favourite films of 2018 already.
From the outset del Toro presents his audience with a world that drips with cinematic magic and spectacle, just as water drips through the floorboards of Eliza’s apartment onto the patrons of the cinema below. That in of itself is what explains and establishes the film’s background: The Shape of Water exists because it rests upon the bedrock of Hollywood cinema, taking the legacy of film that has come before it, and turning it into something new.
It’s easy to see how the film would go, were it made in the time in which it’s set: Strickland the family man protagonist representing “wholesome” white America, recapturing and killing the uncanny Amphibian Man to restore status quo, while the disabled, LGBT+, or PoC characters are pushed into the background or simply do not exist. Del Toro’s choice to focus on Eliza, Giles, Zelda, and Amphibian Man – putting a spotlight on the ostracised and marginalised – is a reframing of a particular part of popular cinematic history. Angela Carter did this for the literary fairy tale with The Bloody Chamber, del Toro now does it with the creature feature. I even saw a touch of an anti-colonial narrative weaved into the film: a western party invades a country and takes something that is precious to them, without the permission of the native peoples, for their own gain. Sound familiar?
In his BAFTA acceptance speech, del Toro called Sally Hawkins “a miracle”, and I dare anyone to disagree with him after watching her performance. She is comedic, romantic, rebellious, and deeply empathetic. There is a scene in which she is trying to convince someone to see her point of view, and the sheer anguish and frustration that contorts her physique is heart-wrenching. To simply call it an emotional performance doesn’t feel adequate; it doesn’t encapsulate her ability to make the audience focus on the most minute details such as the way she dips her chin and smiles, or the careful way she rests her head on a makeshift pillow on the bus. There should also be huge and unending waves of praise going towards Doug Jones and the numerous visual effects artists who worked towards the character of Amphibian Man. Doug’s been acting through latex and other such materials for around 30 years and the man pulls out a great performance each time. In fact, all the performances in this film are brilliant, as each character fills the world with realistic prejudice and darkness (Michael Shannon’s Strickland, the cookie-cutter handsome ‘Pie Guy’), and quiet desperation that stems from some form of isolation (Richard Jenkins as Giles, for one). Not to mention the always stunning Octavia Spencer, who I could listen to speak for hours, as Zelda; whose devotion to Eliza, courage, and determination to navigate and survive a white man’s world is admirable. All of these are supported by a gorgeous score, that is both liltingly romantic and buzzing with suspense; culminating in a beautiful song and dance sequence that did make me cry a little bit.
The Shape of Water is (and isn’t) a film about people who refused to be silenced, who refuse to cower to those who would further marginalise their existence. It’s also a film about one woman’s sexual awakening through her relationship with a literal god but hey, it’s 2018, anything goes. At the heart of this film is an unshakeable sense of love, both platonic and romantic, and its triumph. Del Toro often questions the nature of the monstrous figure in his work, and it is at the forefront of this film, but it is the combination of this discourse with all of the other aspects of The Shape of Water that make it potentially his best work yet.