Let’s face it. Guadalajara, while it has plenty going for it, isn’t a world-class city. It’s an also-ran to a million other Mexican attractions, and like many an also-ran it tends to trumpet its better attributes just a little bit louder than, say, Mexico City, Guanajuato or Oaxaca City. Salzburg, Austria has Mozart.Rosario, Argentina has Che Guevara.
And Guadalajara has Guillermo Del Toro, currently the most prominent and commercially successful Mexican director in the world (the others are Alfonso Cuaron and Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu). That isn’t to say that the city’s pantheon of distinguished citizens isn’t bristling with notable talents, just that in the sphere of international pop culture, he’s Guadalajara’s ace-in-the-hole.
Del Toro, who lives not in Guadalajara but Los Angeles (having fled his birthplace for good in the mid-90s after his father was kidnapped for ransom), has again – after previous triumphs “The Devil’s Backbone”, “HellBoy”, “Hellboy 2”, and “Pan’s Labyrinth” – made his home town proud with “The Shape of Water”, a crackerjack box for cinephiles full of references and homages to just about every mid-century film genre. These include, among others, noir, fantasy, creature-feature and cold war thriller, all filtered through del Toro’s anti-establishment, humanist sensibility and featuring an un-conventional romance at its heart.
Hewing to what I am prematurely calling my hallmark as a novice movie reviewer, I will avoid over-explaining the plot. But here’s the nut: Elisa, a mute cleaning woman (under-the-radar, brilliant British actress Sally Hawkins) in early-1960s Baltimore, works at a sinister government facility and lives in a stylishly grim apartment with a kind but anxiety ridden middle-aged artist named Giles (another lesser-known gem, Richard Jenkins). Her only friend aside from her roommate is co-worker Zelda (the comically adept Octavia Spencer), as vocal as Elisa is terminally taciturn.
One day, scientists arrive to the facility pushing a huge capsule filled with water. It’s contents: a tall, well-built Amphibian Man, who agents of the government led by Colonel Richard Strickland (an outrageously, seethingly villainous Michael Shannon) managed to pluck from a river in South America. Elisa and the creature quickly form a bond around boiled eggs and LPs. The tightly wound plot unspools from there, involving severed fingers, Russian spooks – and the infliction of various wrongs on all and sundry, some of which are allegories for real-world injustices, others which serve to highlight (a little too bluntly, perhaps?) the movie’s time period.
The lynchpin of the film’s central metaphor – that of humanity’s propensity to dehumanize and debase those different from itself in order to both feel superior to, control, and even annihilate the “other” – is Michael Shannon’s scowling, leering Man in the Grey Flannel Suit. He feels constantly under-appreciated, disrespected and undermined in his work and life; he’s a live wire of rage and neurosis, a state of mind nobody conveys better than Shannon. The “other” that this bundle of spiteful, bigoted nerves uses to expiate his feelings of inadequacy is, of course, the Amphibian Man, who the Colonel regards with contempt and disgust. He expresses those feelings vis-a-vis the frequent application of a black electric cattle prod to the creature’s forest green hide.
Of course, it quickly becomes clear that this movie’s monster, its Creature From the Black Lagoon or Mummy or Dracula, isn’t the Amphibian Man, it’s Colonel Strickland.
It’s not a criticism to say that most of the characters in “The Shape of Water” aren’t terribly three-dimensional. This is a cinematic universe where almost everything represents an idea, an ideal, or an aspect of human nature, negative or positive. Elisa waves the flag for empathy, innocence and imagination – the classic silent film-era tragic waif – while her roommate is emblematic of middle-aged disappointment, not to mention the suffering inflicted upon a closeted gay man by a repressive society.
While the prevailing visual aesthetic of the movie is what might be facilely described as “Steampunk Mad Men” – Del Toro loves his sweating iron rivets and green rust – the production’s musical element throws some curve balls which act to relieve all that oppressive, H.G Wellian grime, consisting of several buoyant music cues from the famously-fruit-hatted Brazilian singer Carmen Miranda. The pairing of her bouncy, celebratory music with, for example, a shot following the granite-faced Michael Shannon as he drives in a brand new Cadillac/self-esteem prop, his hands white with tension around the steering wheel, is as good a music-to-image juxtaposition as anything found in Martin Scorsese’s body of work.
The movie also proves surprisingly carnal and risqué, with sex or masturbation used to convey vastly differing psychological states, from lonely desperation to brutal misogyny to the sublime intimacy of a true sexual union.
All these ideas, all these references. If the movie has one fault, it’s that it’s ham-fisted, broadcasting in semantic neon its attitudes towards race, class and gender. But to criticize the density of its references to film and television history would be to miss the point, and by extension to miss the point of many of Del Toro’s movies. While no doubt “Shape of Water” is a kind of Frankenstein’s monster of film genres and tropes, it also succeeds on its own through masterful acting (Michael Stuhlbarg, yet another of the cast’s many virtuosic but relatively little-known talents, deserves a special nods for his work), costumes, cinematography, sound design, editing – even the craft services, which one assumes were stellar, if most likely covered in soot, machine oil and green slime.