For anyone familiar with the work of Guillermo Del Toro, they will know that he has a penchant for monster movies, and utilising them to explore both the innate flaws and immense beauty that humanity has to offer.
Although that concept that ‘the humans were the monsters all along’ seems trite, Del Toro manages to explore it in a way that is fresh and intricate. While still hitting on the themes that fans have come to expect from him.
In an interview for Directed by Magazine in 2007, Del Toro spoke about how most of the villains he has created represent authority in some way. “I hate structure. I’m completely anti-structural in terms of believing in institutions. I hate them. I hate any institutionalised social, religious, or economic holding.”
Over a decade later, this sentiment continues to prevail in The Shape of Water – a monster film spliced with a fairy tale where a mute cleaner befriends a scaled creature who is being being held captive at a top secret government facility.
Set during a hyper-fantastical version of the 1960s, the Cold War is in full swing. But unlike your typical stereotypical films of the period, America is not the be-all and end-all of modern civilisation.
This is first made obvious from the opening scenes, which are inherently French – from the music, to the set to the sheer quirkiness that are all so reminiscent of French cinema. You almost expect our protagonist Elisa (Sally Hawkins) to step onto the streets of Paris. It’s an odd but visually rewarding choice.
Other parts of the film are also permeated with juxtapositions that stand out starkly against the all-American backdrop. It may not be glaringly obvious, but like so much of this film, it’s there beneath the surface.
America is portrayed in a glaringly negative light. Shot through a modern lens, the facade that is so typical of movies from this time period, comes across as overtly false and sinister. There’s even a touch of the Dystopian about it. Much like the pie in the movie, it does not taste as good as it looks.
This is made particularly apparent through the film’s villain, Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), whose life is a picture-perfect epitome of the time. A beautiful homemaker wife, two kids and a puppy on the way. He even buys himself the ultimate American status symbol – a Cadillac.
But beneath the surface, Strickland is cruel. Evil even. And not just for the way he takes delight in torturing the Creature. He will destroy anything that threatens the American Dream. He is the Establishment incarnate. Defender of what has become an often hyper-festishised portrayal of the time period.
His treatment of anyone he deems inferior, including women and minorities, is an accentuated aspect of his personal narrative. Much like the two fingers that become a central motif of the film – anything that is foreign, or doesn’t quite fit, must be ripped out and destroyed.
This theme taps into ideas expressed by Del Toro in another interview in 2009 with Charlie Rose where he expressed that “I believe in man. I believe in mankind, as the worst and the best that has happened to this world.”
And we certainly see this here. Where Strickland is the worst, Elisa is the best. An atypical heroine who exudes kindness and beauty through her actions. As a mute woman with a Latina surname who is pushing forty – she isn’t what Hollywood tends to see as worthy leading-lady.
And the movie is made all the better for it. Hawkins’ portrayal of Elisa is warm, charming and so very human. What she is able to express without the use of words is truly astounding.
I won’t say anything more about the plot, because the charm and magic of this journey should be experienced with fresh eyes. However, if you are a fan of Del Toro, love beautiful cinematography with a message, or are willing to let yourself ship a woman and a Godly fish-man, you need to see The Shape of the Water.
The Shape of Water will be released in cinemas of January 18.