Guillermo Del Toro's 'The Shape of Water' touches greatness
French filmmaker Jean Renoir once famously said, “A director makes only one movie in his life. Then he breaks it up and makes it again.”
If you were to hold a gun to my head and demand that I produce a list of my all-time favorite films, “Pan’s Labyrinth” would make it into the top five one way or another. I mention this because when early reviews for Guillermo Del Toro’s newest film, “The Shape of Water,” declared it the director’s best work since “Pan’s Labyrinth,” I was both optimistic and skeptical. To be clear, I make the comparison to “Pan’s Labyrinth” not because I wish to put “The Shape of Water” at an unreasonable disadvantage, but because the two films have so much in common.
French filmmaker Jean Renoir once famously said, “A director makes only one movie in his life. Then he breaks it up and makes it again.” Del Toro has affirmed his belief in this statement in interviews; indeed, “The Shape of Water” is perhaps best understood as a cap to a thematic trilogy that began with “The Devil’s Backbone” and continued with “Pan’s Labyrinth.” All three films fuse fairy tale narratives and period piece war stories together, highlighting the connections they share to illustrate what does and does not work about each.
As always, Del Toro’s greatest strength is his ability to write engaging characters, particularly complex and well-defined female characters. Sally Hawkins leads the charge as Elisa, a mute janitor who works with her best friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer) in a mysterious government lab overseen by Col. Strickland (Michael Shannon).
The two janitors learn that Strickland is experimenting on an amphibious Creature (Doug Jones) who looks eerily, and intentionally, similar to the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Elisa befriends the Creature, and the rest of the film is a “Beauty and the Beast”-style love story in a manner only Del Toro could conjure.
Sally Hawkins deserves an Oscar nomination for this performance. In fact, she needs that nomination if next year’s Best Actress category intends to be taken seriously. Her character’s silence is, in many respects, metaphoric: a means for Del Toro and co-writer Vanessa Taylor to explore the way in which society has historically attempted to silence and demean women. In fact, the film regularly incorporates social issues such as sexism, racism and general prejudice, with a deft touch that helps reinforces the story’s central themes.
For instance, one of the many pleasures in “The Shape of Water” is watching Elisa use her silence to her advantage, as in a scene where she curses at Strickland using sign language that he cannot comprehend. While her silence may have symbolic value, it provides Hawkins with a very real acting challenge and she truly rises to the occasion. I wished that Del Toro had not felt the need to translate her signing as often he does; her use of body language is so precise that subtitles become superfluous.
Amongst the supporting cast, Shannon is another stand-out. Both “The Devil’s Backbone” and “Pan’s Labyrinth” demonstrated Del Toro’s ability to create villains who are irredeemably evil yet complex and motivated. Shannon’s performance continues this tradition; Strickland is terrifying because he is decidedly human.
In particular, I loved the way Del Toro commented on the “white picket fence” ideal of the ’50s and ’60s through his depiction of the character’s home life. The Colonel has achieved a version of the American Dream, yet this has only made him more controlling, more abusive and more miserable.
“The Shape of Water” shifts the setting of this thematic trilogy from the Spanish Civil War to the Cold War era in America. Part of what makes “The Devil’s Backbone” and “Pan’s Labyrinth” brilliant is that the fantasy elements and period setting are complimentary and symbiotic. You can’t separate one aspect from the other. “The Shape of Water,” however, is a little different. The film heavily features a subplot involving a Russian spy who works in the lab, and while this part of the story is not bad, per se, it belongs in a different film. As much as I enjoyed seeing a depiction of a Russian spy that was actually sympathetic, it felt to me like Del Toro only included the character out of obligation for the setting he had chosen.
In an excellent video titled “What Writers Should Learn from Wonder Woman,” video essayist Sage Hyden discussed Alexander Pope’s literary term “Bathos” and its influence on modern cinema. “Bathos” refers to an artistic juxtaposition between a serious moment and a closely following trivial or vulgar moment. Instances of Bathos have become exceedingly common in today’s genre films as a way for the filmmakers to acknowledge that aspects of these films might be rather corny. Hyden praised “Wonder Woman” for its refusal to use Bathos to undercut its emotional sincerity.
Using Bathos in “The Shape of Water” would have been all too easy; after a tender moment between Sally and the Creature, a different character could have joked about the absurdity of the circumstances. But Del Toro never succumbed to that impulse.
Instead, he approached the events he portrayed with pure sincerity. This is a love story between a fish creature and a human woman and, yes, Del Toro expects us to take it seriously. And perhaps that’s the thing that delighted me most about “The Shape of Water.”
Personally, I found it a little too polished and well-mannered when contrasted with some of the director’s earlier work. But while it may be the weakest member of this thematic trilogy, like “The Devil’s Backbone” and “Pan’s Labyrinth,” it possesses an emotional honesty that has recently been in scarce supply at the movies. As a result, “The Shape of Water” may not be a great film, but it certainly touches greatness.