Photo: Fox Searchlight

Guillermo Del Toro’s baroquely whimsical Cold War fairytale The Shape Of Water (Grade: B) is one of those movies that seems to imprint its gushing love affair with other movies—with the flickering euphoria of classic cinema—onto every image. Cinephilia has always been creative elixir for the Mexican genre maestro behind Pan’s Labyrinth and the Hellboy films; his lushly conceived fantasias spill from the bubbling cauldron of his superfandom. (One has to assume that the world inside his head is a lot like that beastie-infested version of Springfield he whipped up a few years ago, all cameos and callbacks and doomed children.) But in The Shape Of Water, Del Toro transmits obsession with his chosen medium both implicitly and explicitly, concocting a self-consciously old-fashioned curiosity that also pauses occasionally to marvel at a snippet of real Golden Age movie magic, squeezed onto a black-and-white tube TV or spooled up in a grand movie palace. It’s as close to Guillermo Del Toro’s Cinema Paradiso as we’re probably ever going to get, and it features one irresistibly resonant image: a creature of the black lagoon standing ramrod straight in an auditorium, basking in the glow of the silver screen, like a monster worshiping his maker.

Del Toro has a madly racing imagination, but mostly as it concerns cosmetic aspects, like the Gothic-meets-steampunk production design of his otherworldly worlds or the endless gallery of elaborate critters he brings to fearsome, wondrous life. The actual storytelling usually isn’t quite so inventive, and that’s true too of The Shape Of Water, a sweet but thinly conceived Beauty And The Beast riff, set in a stylized facsimile of 1960s America. A mute cleaning woman (Sally Hawkins) falls in love with the towering fishman (Doug Jones, of course) the U.S. government has fished out of the Amazon and plunked into captivity. She doesn’t mind his scales; he doesn’t speak the language she can’t. This cross-species romance is also an office romance, occurring as it does at the laxly run underground research facility (think Hellboy’s bunker HQ, but populated mostly with humorless suits) where our speechless heroine works. If the idea of a secret government laboratory that lets its janitorial staff wander blithely into asset containment rooms sounds like comedy gold, you’re expecting more of a Cabin In The Woods than the earnest fable Del Toro has made—an honest mistake, given the presence of Richard Jenkins, quite touching as Hawkins’ closeted, movie-loving neighbor.

Hawkins is truly radiant in the role, conveying wellsprings of feeling without a line of dialogue; she keeps the character out of woman-child naif territory through wordless nuance, though it also helps that Del Toro gives her adult, carnal desires. The performance is key, I think, to the rapturous reception the movie is receiving; it just won the top prize at Venice, and seems to be enchanting audiences here at TIFF, too. (It helps, perhaps, that the aforementioned movie-house scene was shot in Toronto’s Elgin Theatre, where The Shape Of Water has already screened—talk about feeling like you’re inside the movie.) Me, I prefer perversity from Del Toro; his more wicked confections, like last year’s extraordinarily crafted Crimson Peak and the buckets-of-blood franchise entry Blade II, tend to unleash the full scope of his mad-scientist inspiration. Thankfully, the director’s most nostalgic and stickily sentimental movie, propelled by the romantic whine of an accordion, still has its rejuvenating oddball moments and its flashes of the grotesque—like Michael Shannon’s bigwig bastard villain yanking at his reattached, rotting digits, or how “The Asset,” otherwise sympathetic, manages to fulfill Alf’s dearest desire, breaking a cardinal rule of crowd-pleasing. Also, extra gutsiness points for going where few actual iterations of Beauty And The Beast dare. This is a love story, and not a platonic one at that.