I was looking forward to The Shape of Water, something Le Hubs and I have been planning to go see, but through a combination of factors – chief of them being apathy because it’s winter – didn’t really get to see until yesterday.
The Shape of Water, which, by del Toro’s confession, came from his obsession with the Creature from the Black Lagoon, is the story of what would happen if the girl ends up with the creature. It doesn’t help that the creature – referred to as “The Asset” – looks so much like Abe Sapien from Hellboy, it’s hard to silence the voice in my head screaming “origin story!” (For the record, I wasn’t the only one doing this.)
Set in the Cold War era, Elisa (Sally Hawkins, here a soundless tour-de-force) is a cleaner who works for a top-secret government institution whose main goal is to outstrip the Russians in the race for space dominance. She’s mute, lives above a movie theatre and has friends who are full of spunk: a gay BFF (Richard Jenkins) and a sassy black woman (Octavia Spencer, earning every inch of that Oscar cred) at work. Her life is a routine, and she seems content. Well, content enough. Whatever frustrations she may have are exorcised in her bathtub before her morning even begins.
A story isn’t a story unless something happens, so of course something happens to Elisa, in the form of a mysterious tank brought in one day by Strickland (Michael Shannon, channeling that intense menace as always) who turns out to be the worst sort of alpha male. Twisted, racist and brutal, Strickland is dismissive of and yet inexplicably turned on by, imperfection.
The tank holds The Asset, an amphibious humanoid (
Abe Sapien!) caught in the wilds of the Amazon and dragged to America for dissection because scientists need answers for allowing astronauts to breathe in space. Elisa meets The Asset ( Abe Sapien!) and feels sorry for him. She decides to keep him company during her lunch break, and their unlikely bond is formed by hard boiled eggs and classic oldies. Despite The Asset ( Abe Sapien!) having a bulge as unobtrusive as a Ken doll, there are clearly sparks which lead to the inevitable.
Other things happen of course, as they must, because stories have to have beginnings, middles, and ends. There’s a beautifully evocative scene involving some towels and taps that are allowed to run. Stripped of everything, The Shape of Water celebrates love in its purest form, where looks don’t matter, shortcomings are overlooked and physical barriers are swept aside, the way humans have improbable sex with dinosaurs in those crazy erotic fiction novels that actually exist. But having effectively silenced “Abe Sapien Origins!” the voice had popped up again, squeaking things like “monster porn!” and “slimy, slithery, splendid!”, the possible mechanics of this particular scenario so distracting, it messed with my ability to appreciate the movie for how visually striking and remarkably tender it really is.
Maybe this was because I didn’t go in expecting a love story. That’s on me, for ignoring every obvious marker and breathless movie blurb. To be fair, I never expect a romance when it comes to Guillermo del Toro. Not even when it’s marketed as one. (Exhibit A: Crimson Peak.) To watch a Guillermo del Toro film is to surrender to the clutches of the visionary equivalent of Edgar Allan Poe, even when he goes full-on Technicolor with something like Pacific Rim. It’s the dance of the dark, and the sinister, everything imbued with the sweet scent of rot that seeps through his work. If there’s any sort of romance to be had from del Toro, it’s the deep and abiding love he has for the macabre.