The following review is part of our coverage of the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival.
There appears to be something bizarrely heartwarming afoot in the zeitgeist. After a summer in which the internet decided to adopt The Babadook as a queer icon – and a fall in which the Pennywise from it was also adopted into the fold and subsequently paired off with The Babadook – The Shape of Water is now poised to win hearts and minds in theaters across the world.
These things might not be directly related in terms of form or function. The denizens of the internet made some caustic jokes and memes, while writer/director Guillermo del Toro made a dreamy, sweeping monster movie love story. But the genesis behind them just might be the same: when the world sometimes tells you that you’re a monster, and when you love movies but can’t see yourself in the heroes, you might start to find yourself identifying with the monsters. And then you might start to find yourself wanting better for them. So you create your own stories for them, and for yourself.
As del Toro recently put it to Vanity Fair after The Shape of Water’s successful appearances at the Venice and Telluride film festivals, “monsters are evangelical creatures for me. When I was a kid, monsters made me feel that I could fit somewhere, even if it was… an imaginary place where the grotesque and the abnormal were celebrated and accepted.” The Mexican director, who grew up hoping that Julie Adams and the Creature from the Black Lagoon would get together in the end, sees his latest film, among other things, as a way of “correcting that cinematic mistake.”
And correct it he does, in a way that is sweet and subtle and so much more than simple fan service or wish fulfillment. Eliza (Sally Hawkins), a mild-mannered and non-verbal young woman, lives in Cold War-era Baltimore. She spends her days watching movies and eating terrible pies with her best friend Giles (Richard Jenkins), a gay, middle-aged artist struggling to get his career back on track. She spends her nights in pleasant companionship with her coworker, Zelda (Octavia Spencer), at a top-secret U.S. facility where they’re both cleaners.
It’s all very pleasant but unremarkable until a slimy new agent, Strickland (a typically delightful Michael Shannon), arrives with something they call “The Asset” (Doug Jones). The Americans want to test this new Black Lagoon-like creature. The Russians, who have embedded a morally ambiguous spy in the facilities under the name Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), want to kill it to prevent the U.S. from gaining any advantage in their scientific arms race. When Eliza develops a bond with the creature through music and boiled eggs, and learns to communicate with him through sign language, she realizes that she must save her new friend before it’s too late. Her friends are hesitant at first. Giles begs off, insisting that the creature isn’t even human. But Eliza pleads a solid case. “’If we do nothing,’ she signs back, ‘neither are we.’” Soon these misfits have banded together to save The Asset. Somewhere along the lines, the affection between Eliza and the creature blossoms into something more.
Filmed in aquatic hues and bathed in nostalgic mid-century style, The Shape of Water is both a love story and a love letter to monster movies, musicals, and classic cinema. Del Toro’s affection for the genres – and for the magic of film in general – is clear in so many charming and not-so-charming touches, from the little softshoe that Eliza and Giles execute while sitting on the couch together to the artful way a smear of blood drags across the floor. But it’s also clear in the way that all of these details and hallmarks from various genres weave together to pay a worthy and almost seamless tribute to all of its influences while remaining a thoroughly del Toro vision. It’s strange and unsettling and thrilling and adorable and just a little bit magical, all at once.
The relationship between the creature and Eliza isn’t the only new tweak that del Toro brings to these traditions. He’s also shifting the relationship between these genres and his film’s viewers. It’s no accident that the heroes in this story are a disabled woman, a black woman, and a gay man who face off against a sinister white man with a “perfect” nuclear family at home. Nor is it a political choice; del Toro does not assemble a team of marginalized characters to score social justice points or check off a series of boxes. He creates human characters for aesthetic purposes, and maybe even personal ones. For so long, these genres have primarily focused on, starred, and celebrated white people, abled people, and straight (or at least closeted) people. If you’ve always aligned yourself with the monsters and you want to change their plight on the screen, it makes perfect sense to want to include other people who have felt the same way in the process. If you’re the kind of artist who looks for new stories to tell, these are the stories that have rarely, if ever, been told before.
It doesn’t always work, either for the characters or for the plot, where the film’s storytelling turns a little sloppy toward its end. It would be more successful if Zelda didn’t occasionally veer too close to sassy sidekick territory. And for as brilliant and heart-wrenching as Hawkins is as Eliza, it would have been nice if a film so explicitly about being seeing and loved for who you truly are had sought out a non-verbal actress to play the part.
Whatever imperfections The Shape of Water has, though, they’re minor compared to its broader impact. No love story is perfect, after all, not even the one that a film has for its audience. And that’s exactly what del Toro’s latest vision is. You don’t have to be marginalized in some way to be swept up in its beauty and romance. But if you happen to have had a long-term unrequited relationship with the cinema, there’s a certain joyful rush that comes from having the object of your affections finally turn around and notice that you’ve been there all along.