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5 March 2018 Stephen Applebaum

Go Fish

The Shape of Water

“The Future Is Now”, proclaims an advertisement glimpsed in The Shape of Water, the latest fantastical monster film by director Guillermo del Toro. This ad tips off audiences to the fact that his wondrous reworking of the Beauty and the Beast love story – wherein a mute woman falls for a mysterious, blue-green, two-legged fishman who has been taken captive in a government-military research facility – isn’t really about the Cold War-era the story takes place in. Rather, The Shape of Water speaks urgently to today.

“I wanted to set it in 1962 because when you hear ‘Make America Great Again’, they are talking about an America which never existed,” says del Toro. 

Fifty-five years ago, he says, the future appeared bright and boundless. “Everything was idealised. The cars had jet fins, the kitchens were beautiful, everything was automatic, modern… But [the following year] Kennedy is shot and Camelot collapses, it never really happens.So it’s not a movie about 1962. This is a movie that tells you racism, classism, sexism – everything that was alive in 1962, is alive now. It never went away.”

Acclaimed for his imaginative storytelling, the Mexican director and here co-writer uses the arrival of the amphibious South American and the blooming love story as a way to champion outsiders and misfits, then and now. For this reason, he made his heroine, Sally Hawkins’ character Elisa Esposito, a cleaning woman who is rendered mute following an accident in her youth. When she and the nameless fishman (played by Doug Jones) meet through a glass barrier in the facility where he is being studied, their eyes do the talking, Titanic-style. 

Del Toro wrote Elisa’s character for Hawkins. “I thought she was a phenomenal actress and this remarkable presence,” he recalls. “When I cast the movies I cast the eyes. She can communicate everything with the eyes.

“I wanted essence recognising essence,” he continues. “You can fall in love with someone that is of your opposite religious belief, your same gender, it makes no difference; if you fall in love, you fall in love.” 

The opposite, he says, is ideology. “The act of love is the act of seeing; and the only thing that renders someone invisible is ideology. When a person becomes a number you can beat that person, put them on a card, deport them, because they become an idea. I am trying to say: the things that separate us are ideologies; and the things that join us are essential.”

Del Toro agrees that the new film is his most political yet. As a filmmaker, he says, part of his job is to “do the films that you think need to be told”. He therefore made The Shape of Water “emotionally very, very out there” to counter the cynicism he sees informing the zeitgeist. 

The film was lauded by critics following its premiere at the Venice Film Festival, where it won the Gold Lion, but it could have gone the other way: “You sound really smart when you talk about hatred and you sound really stupid when you talk about love, so I took the immense risk not only talking about love, but talking about love between a woman and a fishman.”

And not only talking. Unlike most retellings of the Beauty and the Beast fable, love is consummated in this definitely un-Disney version.

The filmmaker’s creatures, though, feel incredibly real, and often more sympathetic than the humans (indeed, Michael Shannon’s Colonel Strickland, who oversees the research facility, comes off as the true monster). The reasons for this are rooted in his childhood, says del Toro, who has lived in self-described “forced exile” from Mexico since his father was kidnapped in 1997. “Violence was extremely present. I saw my first corpse at four,” he says. “I have had guns put to my head. I have seen shootouts happening five metres from me.” 

Art and monsters were his refuge. He was deeply moved by the vision of the Gillman swimming beneath Julie Adams in the B-movie classic Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) – a huge influence on The Shape of Water’s aquatic hero – while he believed the monster of Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein (1931) was Jesus. “I saw it as a messianic figure and as a kid I was moved to tears. I said, ‘That’s the most fragile thing I have ever seen.’”

Monsters became his “spiritual life”, says the director of films such as the alien-filled Pacific Rim (2013), the supernatural superhero feature Hellboy (2004) and his Spanish civil war gothic fairytale, Pan’s Labyrinth (2006). “To this day the thing that moves me the most is a monster. They really are my reason to tell stories.” 

However, at 52, del Toro admits he’s contemplating life after movies. “I really think about mortality with extreme precision. I know that there are museums I want to visit, books I want to read and mornings where I want to wake up with nothing on the horizon.”

So how many more films does he have left in him? “I don’t want to jinx it, but there’s not that many. And then I really want to live.”

by Stephen Applebaum