The whimsical and the grotesque meet in Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water

Refreshingly, the film doesn’t shy away from its characters’ unusual desires

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If Amélie got the hots for the Creature from the Black Lagoon, the result would not be so different from The Shape of Water, the latest meeting of the whimsical and the grotesque from Guillermo del Toro, director of Pan’s Labyrinth. Elisa (Sally Hawkins) lives in Baltimore in the early 1960s, in an apartment above the Orpheum picture palace (the name hints at del Toro’s Cocteau-esque leanings). A cleaner at a military research laboratory, she happens also to be mute, placing her among other minorities without a say: there is her African-American colleague Zelda (Octavia Spencer), and her neighbour, the commercial artist Giles (Richard Jenkins), who is gay. The screenplay, by del Toro and Vanessa Taylor, brings together the disenfranchised to save a fellow outcast.

The amphibious monster kept captive at the lab doesn’t have a name, and his idea of witty repartee is to roar in your face. But Elisa takes a shine to him. “When he looks at me,” she signs to Giles, “he doesn’t know what I lack or how I am incomplete.” She secretly plays the creature music and feeds him hard-boiled eggs. The film has already established a link between eggs and sex – Elisa leaves them boiling in the pan each day while she masturbates furiously in the tub, the egg-timer ticking away on the bathroom sink – so we suspect straight away that the bond between them will not be chaste. How could it be, with his fetching frilled neck and ripped 12-pack?

Refreshingly, the film doesn’t shy away from its characters’ desires. Del Toro is working in the vein of Todd Haynes’s Far From Heaven, which revisited an extinct genre (in that case, 1950s melodrama) and applied the sort of details that wouldn’t have been countenanced at the time. The Shape of Water spells out in letters taller than the Empire State Building exactly what Fay Wray and King Kong wanted to do all along.

Giles’s opening voiceover has warned us that the story will feature a monster, but this turns out to be Strickland (Michael Shannon), the colonel who captured the creature in south America and is intent on taunting and eventually dissecting him. It’s unfortunate that the film spends so long in the company of a character so plainly rotten; he even keeps his socks on while having sex, proving my theory that the bad guys in movies are never much cop in bed.

Watertight ideas jostle for space with flawed ones. It’s delightful to begin the film with a dream sequence in which Elisa’s apartment is submerged, fish swimming among the floating chairs and knick-knacks. When the scene is repeated later for real, causing only a minor leak in the cinema below, the rational mind has too many objections (the floor would collapse!) for the fantasy to survive. An amphibious humanoid with magic powers we can believe, but a flooded apartment that’s as good as new one scene later doesn’t stand up. There are other discrepancies too – like the sophisticated CCTV system in 1962, or the creature’s ability to wipe away the bulletholes in his own body, sealing up the wounds, ET-style. Why the palaver when he was being tortured, if he could do that all along?

Hawkins responds to her fantastical surroundings with the kind of naive, enchanted expressions that are the only real option in the absence of dialogue, while Jenkins, a longstanding character actor, makes a feast of more promising material. (Both are included among the film’s 13 Oscar nominations.) As with all del Toro’s movies, the true stars are the design departments, working elegantly in tandem with one another. The gunmetal blue of the ornate laboratory architecture chimes with the cleaners’ outfits. Greens are everywhere: the radioactive glow of a key lime pie, the vivid green jelly on Giles’s posters of happy families, the green gunk in the creature’s tank offset by the blood on the baton that beats him. And Elisa’s moss-coloured coat and emerald brooch, which she trades in later for a crimson ensemble in the most arresting post-coital makeover since Young Frankenstein, when Madeline Kahn emerged from a night of passion with a streaky Bride of Frankenstein bouffant. 

The Shape Of Water (15)
dir: Guillermo del Toro

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 08 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The new age of rivalry