TIFF Review: It’s easy to love with Guillermo Del Toro’s sci-fi romance ‘The Shape of Water’

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Guillermo Del Toro has always made movies about movies, even if they’ve been wrapped up in the particulars of his stylistic flourishes and the rhythm of the moment, but he’s only ever truly committed to genre homage in his last three films.

In Pacific Rim, we had him paying tribute to the kind of tokusatsu man-in-suit films that he loved so dearly as a child, enhanced with all of the power of a modern VFX house and the glee of a filmmaker, after a few critical darlings and stints as a gun-for-hire on Blade II and the Hellboy movies, being finally unleashed to make the kind of popcorn movie that he’d always wanted to see. With Crimson Peak, he paid tribute to the Hammer chamber horrors that contributed so heavily to his style while also tweaking their gender politics and familial fright.

Now, with his latest film, the romance The Shape of Water, Del Toro turns his attention to familiar territory for genre fans of all ages and styles — the creature feature — and, inspired greatly by The Creature from the Black Lagoon, Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast, and a whole host of additional science fiction films and gorgeous relics of the Golden Age of Hollywood, he may have crafted his best film, if not that than certainly it’s the most daring. It has the rhythms and dream logic of a fairy tale, much like Pan’s Labyrinth, but is much more formally audacious and weird than the Del Toro who made that film could have ever been back some ten years ago. It is an aesthetic marvel, with tactile and provocative art direction filtered through every shot, and an intensely emotional study of love and care in a number of different manifestations.

But all of these accolades I’m bestowing upon this film would mean jack shit if its two leads weren’t the absolute best people for their given parts. Sally Hawkins, who seemed to have disappeared from the spotlight after her much-lauded performance in Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky back in 2007, is a marvel here. She’s playing Eliza, a lonely mute woman working the graveyard shift at a Baltimore research facility, who is constantly saved from being fired by her friend Mary (a wonderful Octavia Spencer), and dreams of being something more than being just a weird woman around the office. She has a particular way of expressing herself in this film that’s unlike nearly anything you’ll see outside of silent cinema; she doesn’t so much act as she believes, and she’s able to get a raw quality out of each and every scene she has.

Del Toro asks her to be so much physically at any given moment, whether its through her sign language or her little soft-shoe numbers she does in her apartment’s hallways after watching old films on television with her neighbor and best friend (Richard Jenkins). It is a good life, but a solitary one, and her disability has prevented her from ever having anything more. And then, one day, the research facility receives a very important new specimen, carted into one of the cavernous rooms in their underground facilities inside of something resembling the bastard child of an iron lung and a water heater. It even has its own security detail, led by a really awful G-Man (Michael Shannon, embodying each and every thing wrong with New Frontier-era masculinity), and the cleaning women are told not to go anywhere near it. But Eliza doesn’t listen, and edges closer towards the tank. She reaches out to touch one of its glass portholes, and a webbed, scale-covered hand smacks back against it.

This creature, never given a name outside of a few cursory descriptors by his captors, soon reveals itself to her to be an emotional and intelligent merman, and she soon discovers that he loves a few things above all else. He loves the eggs she hard-boils each and every evening before she heads to work. He loves the music that she plays him when they sit alone in his room at the facility, big-band stuff off of an old portable record player. And soon, he grows to love her as well. He’s played by Doug Jones, who’s a long time collaborator of Del Toro’s and as accomplished as an actor buried under makeup or other VFX work as Andy Serkis, and he’s utterly wonderful here. Jones is covered from head-to-toe in prosthetic makeup, and his design is a fascinating fusion of the Abe Sapien role that he played in the director’s Hellboy movies and the classic design of that iconic green figure that rose from the blackened swamp back in the 1950s. He has expressive eyes, something that Sapien lacked, and no capacity for speech (good luck getting David Hyde Pierce to overdub him now, people), but he’s able to communicate an alien warmth to the viewer. He’s shy at first — afraid of the young woman who seems to be in league with his captors from whatever South American river he was plucked from, and justifiably so — but grows closer to her, and his own movement changes over the course of the film. He’s hidden initially, glimpsed in fleeting glances by the audience, and his character expands with his posture. He begins the film crouched, tortured, and over the course of the film and the rewarding love of Eliza, he begins to stand, and he begins to assert his personhood. Hawkins and Jones have an alluring chemistry about them, full of the kind of dramatic soft-focus love that we’d normally lavish upon a Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman pairing inside a Douglas Sirk film.

Del Toro’s universes are rarely cold, but they’re not normally this deeply felt and emotional. He’s made tear-jerking stories about alienation and the nature of fantasy, and this time he’s turning his eye on love, specifically the power of touch, an observation that my friend Charles Bramesco made soon after leaving a screening of it at TIFF this year. It’s about the deep necessity of intrapersonal physical connection, and figures that metaphor into almost all of the emotionally resonant members of the cast. Spencer’s husband doesn’t seem to care about her enough to help her do anything around the house, even though she’s babying him every chance she gets and trying to claim that this is some sort of love. Jenkins, a closeted gay man ostracized from his former advertising firm, falls in love with a counter clerk at a Southern-themed pie place, which goes about as well as you’d imagine for a man of his orientation in the Camelot era. And finally, Shannon, who uses his cold, id-driven animality to intimidate and assure his status as the quintessential figure of white patriarchy, and he’s utterly fantastic each and every step of the way. To his credit, he never manages to make his special agent feel like a wholly cardboard cutout of a specifically American evil — there are notes and hints that he’s not totally satisfied with his life (the fact that we spend a not-insignificant amount of time with him as he goes about purchasing a car — which he declares he wants in the heights of orgasm while fucking his wife- says enough) and the occasional glimpses of him chafing against the system are enough to complicate what might be, in a lesser actor’s hands, putridly plain.

That would be an utter shame, given the fantastically alive and gorgeous world that del Toro and Danish cinematographer Dan Laustsen (whom he had worked before with on Crimson Peak) have crafted here, as if they’d set Jean-Pierre Jeunet and company loose in the nightmarish halls beneath Area 51. Sure, the world is dark and steely, and the film always seems to take place at night, but there’s an element of pure fantasia at work within each and every frame. There’s an exquisite and interesting color palette at play here, given the contrasting reds and greens of the environments in the film, and the deep contrast between Eliza’s warm wood-paneled homelife and the sterility she helps to keep in place at her work is well-used and well-noted. And for all of the fantastic visuals, Alexandre Desplat’s wonderful score helps to keep it together as well — a poetic and sweet arraignment, heightened and disrupted by the shrieking notes of the theremin. There’s so much more left to say — about how the film handles sexuality, about the few scares and shock moments and how they’re used, about the classic films that Del Toro stacks throughout the runtime of the film and his lovely allusions to them.

There’s more to say about the role of disability in the film, and how The Shape of Water subverts that very effectively in its third act. Finally, there’s so much more to say about the visuals, each of which has stuck with me long after the credits rolled and my audience filed out into the Scotiabank lobby, but I’d want you to be able to participate in that discussion as well, and given that the film’s not going to hit theaters until the eighth, we’ve got a long time before that’ll happen. So take my advice here: get your tickets early for this one, because you won’t want to miss this.

Is it Del Toro’s best film? Probably not, given that Pan’s is still brilliantly structured and wonderfully cast, and remains perhaps the best distillation of his particular ethos onto celluloid, but The Shape of Water, for its sweetness and soft-lit beauty, may be my favorite of his work so far. And I can’t wait to fall in love with it again and again.

Follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus, and recap all our TIFF 2017 coverage here.