TIFF 2017 Review: THE SHAPE OF WATER Triumphs

Del Toro’s love letter to monsters is one of the year’s best films.

Guillermo Del Toro is a flawed filmmaker. He wears his heart on his sleeve, which for some makes for too much in the way of overwrought emotionality. His dialogue is occasionally too on point. His allegories lean to the overt and heavy handed. His adoration for the abnormal is rampant through his filmography, and for those fearing a repetition of themes they can find something to complain about.

Guillermo Del Toro is also a brilliant filmmaker. He’s a polyglot linguistically and culturally, drawing influences from such an encyclopedic reach that it can be intimidating to even consider what goes around his mind fueling inspiration. His passion for the medium is so infectious it makes you love movies more. His films, no matter if they’re studio action pieces or more art house in scope, underscore the burning talent emitting from an auteur as comfortable with blood and gore as he is with the operatic or elegiac. He is a modern fabulist, an iconoclast who brings you into his world of wonders and leaves you forever changed by the visit.

It’s these contradictory elements, a brilliance made better by its flaws, that makes his films so exhilarating. Del Toro’s works blend the world of the serious and adult with the wonder and abandon of childhood, unafraid to be brutal, brash and beautiful in equal measure. With The Shape Of Water he takes things up a notch, marrying the best of his Spanish language films with the craft honed in his most recent studio productions.

For the storyline the writer/director takes one of his childhood fascinations, The Creature From The Black Lagoon, and twists it in his inimitable style, finding affection rather than fear and inverting the image of an amphibious creature cradling the woman with whom he is connected.

The Shape of Water is the story of those who are usually invisible finding themselves at the heart of a fairy tale, shifting the usual focus about who gets to be the protagonist and who is the supporting player. Here a group of disparate individuals – members of the cleaning staff, a scientist hiding his identity, and old homosexual artist being forgotten by an industry he tries to please – find themselves confronting a world populated by members of the dominant culture. It’s at once the story of misfits banding together while also a complete metaphor for how groups form a majority outside what’s considered to the be a baseline.

With elements of noir, horror, romance and musical filmmaking The Shape of Water provides a heady brew of references, all combining to form a delightful whole.  With sumptuous design, the world of the early '60s is brought to life, where teal cars with fins and chunky electronics spoke to a space age future to come.

This is the story of a mute girl named Eliza (Sally Hawkins) who together with Zelda (Octavia Spencer) clean the piss off the floor of a secret military base under the control of a man named Strickland (Michael Shannon). When the scientist Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) helps bring in an amphibious creature known as The Asset (Doug Jones) to experiment upon events are set in motion.

The narrative proceeds in ways both familiar and fresh, toying with our expectations while providing moments of great beauty. This is a ballet of tone, where that mixture of romance and horror that’s often at the heart of GDT’s works plays out with dexterous choreography.

Hawkins is at the forefront of establishing the world of the film, her physicality and warmth, as well as her giggly lust and matter-of-fact moments of egg timer monitored onanism offers our core entrance into this world. Her neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins) provides another fascinating figure, serving a sharp contrast to another of Shannon’s powerhouse, rageful roles. It’s easy perhaps to feel Shannon repeating himself, yet performance after performance he finds new, startling ways to play characters of this ilk.

Shot by John Wick and Crimson Peak’s Danish DP Dan Laustsen, and with help from a production design team led by Paul Austerberry, the imagery in the film is as evocative as one would expect from GDT. From the sterile corridors of the base to the cluttered look of the apartments situated above a theatre this is a work that feels lived in, each stain and cracked tile like a story in itself.

As for The Asset, the design nicely echoes the one Millicent Patrick sketched for the original Gill Man while still feeling very much of its own piece (just as, say, C-3P0 echoes Metropolis' aesthetic). It’s all the more fitting, of course, that the original Lagoon narrative was born when the esteemed Mexican cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa discussed with producer William Alland a myth about half-fish, half-men who roamed the Amazon. Here, decades later, we have a Mexican shooting a revised telling of that myth, drawing upon indelible images from his own childhood to provide a retro-modern fantasy that’s both homage and its own creature.

The Shape of Water is Del Toro’s best English language film, and it may in fact be his best work, period. It feels as precise a vision as any of his other movies while at the same time brimming with passions of his earliest films. Combining a myriad of themes dear to his heart, this is a work of ambition and scope told with restraint (both narrative and budgetary). It’s the culmination of so much of what has come before, both from GDT’s own films and those of other prevailing myths, yet twists things in ways that feel enormously satisfying.

In the end this is a film that poetically tries to articulate the impossible. It seeks to highlight in a genre mashup what drives and constitutes love itself. This emotion is as formless as the title evokes. GDT’s gift is to lead us along this journey, bringing us into his world and telling us a great story. It’s a work that feels both new and like it has always been. It may not result in many converts to the cause, but for those open to its wonder this will surely be one of the most satisfying, beautiful films you will see this year.