I have a hunch that a large portion of contemporary filmmakers are averse to dabbling in the fantasy genre, for fear of losing some sense of credibility: you can’t be taken seriously as a director, dealing with fables and fairytales.
Yet director Guillermo del Toro has proven time and time again that this is a huge oversight, that you can produce rich, meaningful work through the medium of magic and monsters. Pan’s Labyrinth, in the vein of the films of Victor Erice, took a jab at the Francoist, fascist politics of post-Civil War Spain. Crimson Peak, while an entertaining gothic romp in its own right, wasn’t afraid to correct the caricaturistic damsel-in-distress cliché that has more than outstayed its welcome.
But if for whatever reason someone still needs convincing that there is merit in fantasy, allow me the opportunity to turn you towards del Toro’s latest, The Shape of Water, a film that is gloriously constructed, perfectly performed and yet, above all, is beautifully and endearingly determined to give a voice to those who are refused the chance to speak for themselves.
There is a literal relevance to this last claim, as The Shape of Water follows mute janitor Elisa (Sally Hawkins) who, along with her friend and translator Zelda (Octavia Spencer), works in a government facility that deals in all things covert and confidential. One such asset is an amphibian creature of sorts (Doug Jones), described as an elemental god, who is caught and subjected to tests and torture by the ruthless Strickland (Michael Shannon) for scientific and political gain. While Strickland’s relationship with the creature fuels his desire for superiority, the opposite occurs in the case of Elisa. Upon meeting the creature during her duties, she begins to connect with it, a bond that blooms to the point of communication and physical affection.
This may sound like an unusual situation, an adult Beauty and the Beast that you never knew you needed. But this is del Toro’s purpose overall: to normalise what is, unfortunately, still considered to be abnormal by many within our society. How does del Toro achieve this? By uniting a number of characters that are all exposed to reaction and action that seeks to subdue their identities.
With Elisa’s neighbourly friend Giles (Richard Jenkins), we find a closeted homosexual who, for years, has lived alone, shunned by society and thus lacking in the confidence to articulate his true feelings.
With Zelda, we witness a black woman who is treated as lesser by the likes of Strickland, who is surreptitiously clinging on to the fascist ideals of the 40s.
And with Elisa herself, we see a woman that, without the ability to speak, is placed in a position in which she considers herself to be incomplete, unfulfilled: in a critical reference to the phallocentric, Freudian concept of castration, Elisa declares herself to be ‘lacking’ and thus ignored by the wider world.
Yet del Toro refuses to make this a film that wallows in displays of subjugation. Instead, he crafts a narrative that empowers these characters with agency, as they attempt to overcome their own plights in order to assist the Amphibian, the ultimate manifestation of otherness. It’s an uplifting passage of storytelling that drips with brilliantly cohesive commentary: it’s a fairytale with feeling and thought.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in del Toro’s depiction of Elisa. The Shape of Water serves as another fantastic illustration of the liberating treatment of women on screen, a trend that is exemplified by similar efforts in recent films such as The Post, All the Money in the World and The Handmaiden. The most refreshing example in this case is del Toro’s handling of feminine sexuality, particularly through the depiction of Elisa’s morning masturbation. Rather than exhibit it as something to-be-looked-at, del Toro presents it as a customary part of Elisa’s routine, a perfectly normal activity that seamlessly blends into the narrative. In these sequences, DOP Dan Laustsen blurs the action into the background, yet its presence is felt: it’s simultaneously seen yet unseen, made-aware-of yet processed as natural. It’s in touches like this that The Shape of Water stands out as a truly cathartic experience.
However, none of this would work without the brilliant Sally Hawkins. As Elisa, she exudes an exuberant energy that evokes the eponymous heroines of Louis Malle’s Zazie dans le Métro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie. With a fearless dedication to physical expression, Hawkins communicates all of Elisa’s feelings through her hands, body and eyes. It’s a remarkable performance, one that characterises Elisa as the heroine we all need right now, a woman that, despite her muteness, speaks volumes.
While it may seem like I’m setting The Shape of Water up as a socially exploratory drama, this is still a del Toro film through and through. With a gorgeous green tinge inhabiting Dan Laustsen’s cinematography and Paul Austerberry’s production design, The Shape of Water’s sets take on a fantastical feel, all amplified by Alexandre Desplat’s accordion-heavy, Parisian soundtrack: combined, they fashion a wondrous film-scape that feels exciting to explore. While its themes are grounded in the issues of today, its visual elements are of another world.
Del Toro is fearless in his originality and The Shape of Water is decisive proof of that. While any other director would appear mad for incorporating an underwater love scene and a 50s-style musical number into the same film, del Toro makes it work, crafting a magical realm that isn’t afraid to put a smile on our face. The Shape of Water tackles some prominent themes, as related earlier. But I will reiterate, del Toro isn’t interested in the bleak present. Instead, he looks to the future, endowing a common purpose upon his various characters that is fulfilling and beautiful to behold. It’s a wonderful tale that will stand the test of time: a fairytale love story with heart, intellect and courage that’ll leave you feeling uplifted for days to come.