The Shape of Water is the latest flick from modern-day king of monsters Guillermo del Toro. A creator in thrall to the Famous Monsters of Filmland, if he’d been around in the fifties he would be hanging with Forrst J. Ackerman and punting out smart, punchy B-features. A useful comparison here might be Jack Arnold, director of The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), Tarantula (1955) and, pertinently, Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) and its first sequel Revenge of the Creature (1955)- the clear inspirations for The Shape of Water. These are all fine films, intelligent, well-made using the best effects technology of the time to depict their monsters; giant spiders (both in terms of a tiny man’s perspective and literally) and the titular creature in the latter two (the creature was Universal’s last great addition to its pantheon after the success of Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy and The Wolf Man in the 1930s). Arnold’s features are capable of cinematic poetry (see the end sequence of Shrinking Man or the underwater photography in Creature) but such sequences have to be built around (or into) the demands of the genre, the studios and the social mores of the time.
Luckily for us, del Toro is around now, meaning he has the budgets, technology and requisite distance and auteur status to approach the creature feature in more considered ways. Not for him the simple nostalgic joy of recreating the monster movies of old, del Toro always brings something new to the table: a romantic, gothic sensibility; an incredible eye for set-design and photography, and a clear love and sympathy for his creatures. Drawing from the archetype of the misunderstood monster (1935’s Bride of Frankenstein, in particular, is a key part of del Toro’s cinematic DNA) del Toro’s films have a psychological depth that is missing from most earlier monster movies. Since his first, troubled, America feature Mimic (1997), the director has alternated between American pictures that allow him to explore large-scale settings and figures (Blade 2 (2002); Hellboy (2004); Pacific Rim (2013)) with smaller Mexican features heavier on atmosphere and symbolism (The Devil’s Backbone (2001); Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)). Curiously, his last feature, Crimson Peak (2015), and this newest film seem to mark a new synthesis of Hollywood scale and intimate psychological fantasy.
The Shape of Water takes place in early 1960s America at the height of the Cold War. A mute woman named Elisa (Sally Hawkins, inspired) works as a cleaner in a mysterious government facility where one day an amphibious man-creature is shipped in from the Amazon, where, we hear, the creature was worshiped as a god. On American soil however it is merely an asset, a potential tool for the Americans (and, we discover, the Russians) for examining how human anatomy might be adapted for interstellar travel, thus gaining an edge in the space race. The voiceless Elisa feels drawn to the similarly voiceless creature, and begins to bond with it, sneaking into its room to play it/him music and feed him/it hard-boiled eggs. Eventually the Americans decide that vivisection is necessary to learn more about the creature and so a plan is hatched to help it escape.
From this premise del Toro’s builds his most overtly romantic film, a genuine love story, albeit between a woman and an amphibious fish-man. An old-fashioned Hollywood fairy-tale, Shape of Water takes place, not in any ‘real’ 1960s, but a heightened cinematic reality. Elisa and her painter neighbour live above a dilapidated cinema and share evenings playing records and watching old musicals on Giles’s black and white television. Cinema, music, painting; all function as means of escape and transformation from the suffocating conformity of cold war America. While the film is a hymn to the power of (posthuman) love it is also a hymn to cinema itself. Every aspect of The Shape of Water is beautifully modulated, the camera gliding like a dancer’s feet in the old musicals Elisa and Giles watch and imitate together. Even the scene when Elisa and the Creature finally consummate their relationship is played, not for seedy laughs, but with genuine erotic and emotional intensity. The creature himself embodies these qualities- the potential of the experience of something wholly other. The possibility of a different world, a new way of being. As gracefully portrayed by del Toro regular Doug Jones the creature is sensitive, even alluring, but still never fully-human (his eating of a house-cat illustrates the point nicely).
But then, why would one want to be human given what they are capable of? As ever, del Toro counterpoints the liberating potential of monsters with an authoritarian figure that embodies its opposite. In Pan’s Labyrinth it is the fascist general, here it is the reliably intense sociopathy of Michael Shannon’s Colonel Richard Strickland. Strickland is portrayed as the living ideal of the American Dream- a cosy house and family in suburbs, a smart suit, a snazzy new car, a promising career in the military-industrial complex. Opposed to him are Elisa and the Creature, both in their way outcasts from the mainstream, ‘human’ society, along with Elisa’s friends Zelda and Giles, who are, tellingly, a black woman (Strickland uses the phrase ‘your people’ at one point) and a gay artist.
In one neat ongoing metaphor the film depicts Strickland, avatar of the old, conservative order, literally falling apart (in one grotesque moment he tears off his own gangrenous fingers) while, by contrast, our outsider protagonists start to become whole (Giles and his art, Zelda asserting herself to her husband). Not to be too academic about it, but The Shape of Water demonstrates what philosopher Donna Haraway called ‘the promise of monsters’, whether society defines that ‘monstrosity’ in terms of race, sexuality or, indeed, species.
You could read it that way, or you can just think of it as “the film where the lady shags a fish-man”. Either way, it’s some kind of masterpiece.