Off the top of my head, I can’t think of a lot of movies in the ‘human falls in love with non-human’ sub-genre of horror/fantasy. There’s King Kong, obviously. Howard The Duck. Splash, in a pinch. It’s obviously not a dramatic theme that obsesses a lot of people. Which makes Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape Of Water all the weirder. He’s taken this singularly perverse – perhaps unpopular – idea, and made a tonally bonkers high-gloss mainstream-adjacent oddity that for all the world feels like everyone loves movies about cross-species love.
Obviously, what del Toro loves more than anything is ‘monsters’ (and in countless interviews he’s said as much). His films are full of them. With The Shape of Water, he makes literal this love, by having his leading lady, Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a cleaner in a secret government laboratory in the United States in the 1960s, fall in love with an amphibious humanoid fish-fellow clearly inspired by The Creature From The Black Lagoon. To level the playing field (and allow for a lot of strained thematic depth) he’s made Elisa a mute.
I don’t know who on earth this very peculiar film is for (besides del Toro). There were two young boys, sans parents, sitting next to me, who had obviously come for a film from the dude who made Hellboy and Pacific Rim; after Hawkins had gamely masturbated in her bath – twice – one said to the other, “What’s she doing in there?” They laughed uncomfortably at all the profanity and other sexual situations (some of which might provoke a titter or two in an adult audience) and were probably as weirded out as I was by some of the gory violence, considering the general tone – in a movie that barely has a general tone – was ET-era Spielbergian.
Indeed, the film feels like Spielberg (the camera never stops moving; the score constantly underlines the action) crossed with Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Amelie, Delicatessen – the production design is clearly influenced by both) crossed with David Cronenberg (The Fly, for multiple resonances). It’s full of childlike wonder but also a childish desire to shock. It’s Guillermo’s playpen, and, at this limited budget (it cost $20m but looks like much more) he’s allowed to do whatever he wants, which may not be what anyone else wants.
And yet… people all over the world are responding to this absurd mishmash, with the possibility very real that it may win the Oscar for Best Picture! There is no doubt the craft is impeccable (if cheesy and seriously old-fashioned) and Hawkins gamely gives a performance that, while skirting dangerously close to Amelie-level cutesiness, just manages to be involving. Michael Shannon commits with every cell of his being to playing a cookie-cutter villain, and Octavia Spencer swallows her pride to play a horrendously written colleague of Elisa’s. And, all too obviously, the creature is also a big big metaphor, with del Toro spoon-feeding us Notes On Tolerance through displays of homophobia and racism. To paraphrase what they say about Trump, it’s like a dumb person’s idea of a smart movie.