The return of Guillermo Del Toro

I remember watching the trailer of Guillermo Del Toro´s The Shape of Water for the first time in awe. The Hellboy childhood fan within me could not stop bouncing around in excitement about getting an unexpected prequel focused on the origins of Abraham Sapiens’ character. When the movie premiered, it turned out to be unlike anything I could have expected. For this, I am beyond glad. As a long fan of Del Toro’s work, I dare deem The Shape of Water his most ambitious and meaningful project since Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)

 Admittedly, my faith in him decayed after watching Hellboy II: The Golden Army, where both the connection to the comic series and to the gothic atmosphere that had captured Mike Mignola’s eerie imagery so well in the first installment of the franchise was missing. Five years later, Pacific Rim was still not my cup of tea. I have nothing against mechas and giant monsters, but Del Toro’s predilection for makeup and animatronics had turned the characters played by Doug Jones in the dark fairytale set in the Spanish Civil War so real and palpable that it felt like such a pity for Del Toro to be involved in a project that depended so much on CGI. Crimson Peak had a promising premise, for I could not imagine a better choice than the Mexican director’s cinematography to bring to life the gloom of a Victorian ghost story. Sadly, it ended up having a rather weak plot that did not manage to exploit the paranormal potential of the story to the fullest. After this long series of disappointments I was about to give up completely on what had been one of my favorite filmmakers, but then The Shape of Water came and faith was restored.

  Now, the film’s premise is not breaking any new grounds. The monster already fell in love with a lady in Peter Jackson’s King Kong and a bunch of good hearted common folk already outwitted the government to save a non-human friend in Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. So what is it that makes The Shape of Water different, and thus, praiseworthy?

  Firstly: Elisa Esposito is all that Bella Swan was not in Twilight. Some may think this is a silly comparison, but is it really? In the past decade paranormal romance in the big screen has been widely associated to the movie adaptations of Stephenie Meyer’s vampire saga. Here, Bella is portrayed with a humdrum personality and a beauty that pleases the eye without making her a sex symbol. All in all, it feels like the point is to make her the simplest possible character so that a wider range of female fans can relate to her, which may sound like a great idea in terms of broadening the audience, but ultimately takes away the captivating element of the movie. It is impossible to believe that such a mundane girl would catch the eye of a vampire that has all the time in the world to find much better partners for eternity, and thus we have Edward Cullen struggling for five movies to transmit to the audience what he sees in Bella that is so infatuating, other than the script’s demands. But enough of bashing Twilight; the point I want to make is that Guillermo Del Toro has put the quality of Elisa’s character over the needs of the viewer. She is a lonely, middle-aged, not so gracious woman that is mute and whose best friend is an elder gay man in the discriminating world of the 1960’s. Now this, added to Sally Hawkins brilliant performance, is what makes an outcast. It makes it so believable that a supernatural being would take notice of her, and also that she would fall in love in return of the attention. There is a saying in Spanish that reads: there is always a broken one for an unstitched one. Elisa and the Creature are a match made in heaven, not because that’s what the script says, but because they are broken in ways that fit together.   

  This brings us beautifully into one of my favorite things about the film: it is really graphic. There is no modesty when it comes to show us Elisa pleasing herself while she takes a bath every morning, nor when she feels aroused by the Creature’s touch for the first time and immediately after strips off her nightgown to have sex with it. I remember faces flinching around me in the cinema room, but for me it was beautiful that the movie chose to be so raw and natural. It worked so much better than if Del Toro had opted for a more platonic kind of romance where Elisa and the Creature barely touched each other, because by being suggestive it feels real that these two souls are in love and genuinely desire each other.

  Another element that was masterfully built was the villain. I can’t help but think that Colonel Richard Strickland is Del Toro’s harsh critique on the ideal of the model American Citizen during the Cold War era. Michael Shannon’s performance is astonishingly convincing, not only when portraying a cold-hearted and methodical soldier, but also when it comes to humanizing him. Beneath his severe façade, the Colonel is a deeply insecure man. We see this in how he treats his submissive wife, the way the car dealer acutely gets on his soft side with a speech about gaining social power and recognition with the purchase of an expensive car, the contempt with which he addresses Elisa and her black friend Delilah (his racist remarks towards her brilliantly elaborated, for instead of being explicitly cruel like it’d be with your average obnoxiously intolerant bad guy, it is subtle and comes out of him apathetically, becoming a great reflection of the 1960’s structural racism in American society) and his desperation to please his superiors in the Army at all costs. To me, this is the best villain Guillermo Del Toro has come up with ever since Captain Vidal in Pan’s Labyrinth (another amazing performance by actor Sergi López).

  My harshest point of criticism would be for the movie’s ending. The story is full of little tragedies that harmonized together: loneliness, heartbreak, betrayal… but this movie would have been absolutely brilliant were it edited in such a way that it was more left up to the audience to decide whether the heroes get their well deserved happy ending or they become the Romeo and Juliet of fantasy cinema (which yet again, was the case in Pan’s Labyrinth. There are not enough good things I could say about this movie).   

  All in all, The Shape of Water is a beautiful ode to outcasts and a moving romance full of every-day tenderness and childish whimsicality, bringing an uplifting vibe to a noir fantasy fairytale. Guillermo Del Toro has yet again shown us how much of a talented filmmaker he is, and I only hope that we do not have to wait through another ten years of mediocre films before he hits us all with his next masterpiece.

Post by Javier Gonzales


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