Guillermo del Toro, like most of his peers who’ve managed to make some sort of mark in Hollywood, owns a house in Los Angeles. While it is located in a relatively affluent neighbourhood, and wouldn’t draw a second glance from passers-by – it could be the home of the Dursleys, as far as the unremarkable suburban exterior is concerned – it is, on the inside, a veritable house of horrors.
There are entire rooms dedicated to the Mexican auteur’s favourite genres, fantasy and horror. Life-size wax figures of Edgar Allen Poe and HP Lovecraft occupy opposite corners of one room — strategically placed to give the illusion that they’re eyeing each other — while a pea-soup-stained statue of Linda Blair stares blankly at the television in another. There are stacks upon stacks of books on every topic under the sun, surrounded by memorabilia from films and other assorted grotesquerie. Look it up online, there are a couple of excellent videos on it, and del Toro is in proper tour guide mode.
Outside, surrounded by ivy, there is a name. He calls it the Bleak House.
Watching one of del Toro’s movies often gives the impression that you’re on a personalized tour of Bleak House, guided by the maestro himself, your hand placed firmly in his. He takes you from one room to another, excitedly tapping on walls to reveal hidden doors, nudging your attention towards artifacts you’d normally – or even deliberately – ignore.
The Shape of Water is a film only del Toro could have made. It’s the world as he sees it – full of injustice, but also, crucially, decency. Where others see pain, he sees hope, where others see fear, he sees compassion, where others see monsters, he sees friends. Every frame of every scene bleeds a passion for the absurd that only he has. From the downright romantic way in which he shoots the monster – all his monsters – to the classic Hollywood tone he appropriates, a tone not too far removed, you’d be surprised to learn, from 2016’s best film, La La Land.
Like that modern masterpiece, The Shape of Water is very much a silent movie musical – neither of its protagonists can speak. It is a love story and a monster movie, it is a romantic comedy and an espionage thriller, and a fantasy both literally and emotionally; it is also a horror movie. And it is one of those rare films in which all these clashing tones can still feel part of the same world, like different rooms inside the same Bleak House.
It tells the story of a mute janitor, Elisa (played by SallyHawkins in a performance worthy of that Best Actress Oscar), who works in a secret government laboratory during the Cold War. And as if he hadn’t already swept the cinephiles off their feet, del Toro gives her a home above a movie theatre – the sort of theatre whose name is lit with a vertical neon sign and has a misspelled marquee across its face.
One day, Elisa, caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, witnesses the arrival of a mysterious tank from South America. It contains a creature, a humanoid amphibian taller than any man she has ever seen, with glistening, green scales and large, fearful eyes. She is warned never to communicate with him; she is to clean up and keep quiet. She’s good at doing both. But every day, she sees the creature being tortured and being experimented on by a cruel man, played by Michael Shannon, who wants to exploit him in an effort to help his country in the Space Race.
She looks on, too scared to stop the evil men in their spotless white lab coats, prodding and poking the creature, shackling him up against a wall, out of the water tank he needs to survive. Silently, she cleans the blood off the floor when they’re done. But one day, she decides enough is enough. With the help of her only two friends — a chatty fellow janitor played by Octavia Spencer and her neighbour, Giles, played by Richard Jenkins — she stages a breakout.
And that’s when the movie enters the area of the Bleak House del Toro usually keeps off limits – a hidden attic where you could picture the director poring over a grand desk, reading, writing, drawing and creating. This is the most personal he has ever been. We’ve known of his affinity for the monsters, for the outcasts and the misfits, but this is del Toro inviting you into such personal space that in certain scenes, you’d be compelled to look away.
The Shape of Water is not my favourite Guillermo del Toro film, but it is certainly the film with which he deserves to win that Best Director Academy Award, even if that means beating Christopher Nolan. It is a frightfully brave film – like The Post and Get Out and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, all fellow Oscar nominees, but for different reasons. Its central characters are a mute woman, an elderly gay man, a black woman, and someone who isn’t a human at all. That sounds historic. And none of that matters, because of the empathy del Toro has for each of them. He has given them the voice that they normally wouldn’t have.
The Shape of Water’s achievements lie not in the fact that he made it for less than a tenth of the budget he had for Pacific Rim – it looks at least thrice as expensive as it really is – but it is his glorious, dreamlike visuals – his camera floats around characters, through rooms and passages, as if on water – that wonderful old-world score by Alexandre Desplat, full of whimsy and wonder, and above all, the honesty with which he treats his characters.
It certainly isn’t the easiest film to watch – it challenges and confounds the viewer constantly – and like the creature, acclimatizing to its world takes effort, and patience. But the best things usually do.