In Guillermo Del Toro’s The Shape Of Water, a mute janitor falls in love with a towering merman: She doesn’t mind his scales, and he doesn’t speak the language she can’t. But the real romance powering this baroquely whimsical Cold War fairytale isn’t the one between woman and fish, but rather a lifelong infatuation with movies themselves—with the flickering euphoria of classic cinema. Del Toro, the Mexican genre maestro behind Pan’s Labyrinth and the Hellboy films, has ladled multiple fantasias from the bubbling cauldron of his superfandom. But with The Shape Of Water, he 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, like Bill Robinson dancing down the stairs with Shirley Temple in The Little Colonel. 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 its 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, an immaculately crafted but thinly conceived Beauty And The Beast riff, set in a stylized facsimile of 1960s Baltimore. Much of the movie takes place at a laxly run underground research facility, not much different from Hellboy’s bunker HQ, but populated with humorless suits instead of misfit superheroes. It’s here that our speechless heroine, Elisa (Sally Hawkins), makes ends meet, mopping up pools of blood with the brassy Zelda (Octavia Spencer, who fires comic-relief dick and piss jokes, while also serving as exasperated straight woman to the movie’s mounting sci-fi impossibilities and espionage intrigue).
If it sounds like comedy gold, the idea of a top-secret government laboratory that lets its janitorial staff wander blithely into asset containment, then you’re expecting more of a Cabin In The Woods than the earnest fable Del Toro has made. (It’s an honest mistake, given the presence of Richard Jenkins, who’s quite touching as a closeted, Hollywood-obsessed neighbor, waxing poetic during the bookending storybook narration he delivers.) Elisa, who lives in the apartment above an old movie palace, is drawn to the new “asset”: the similarly voiceless fishman (Doug Jones, back in prosthetic gills very reminiscent of the ones he wore in Hellboy) that her employers have fished out of the Amazon and thrown into captivity. The two hit it off immediately, Elisa earning the creature’s trust and affection by feeding him eggs and dancing with a mop to old Benny Goodman records.
There are those, like Elisa and also sensitive scientist Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), who recognize the humanity of Jones’ amphibious anomaly. But personnel of both U.S. and Soviet intelligence miss his intelligence, seeing only a strange thing to be exploited, studied, eventually dissected, and exterminated. This includes the movie’s bastard bigwig of a villain, played by Michael Shannon as the embodiment of racist, sexist, toxic American masculinity (circa 1962 or 2017, take your pick). Like just about any new entertainment featuring an immoral tyrant, The Shape Of Water can double as an accidentally timely parable about pushing back against authoritarianism; “If we do nothing, neither are we,” pleads Elisa, when trying to talk her nervous neighbor into helping her free the asset. But maybe Shannon’s done this kind of oily heavy too many times, because it frankly gets a little boring, watching him repeatedly answer that old unspoken question of who’s the real monster.
Hawkins, though, is truly radiant in her role, conveying wellsprings of feeling without a line of dialogue, making sign language look like second nature, and mostly rescuing her character from quirky woman-child naif territory—from looking like a pantomiming Amélie, in other words. It helps that Del Toro provides Elisa with adult, carnal desires, making The Shape Of Water the rare cross-species matchmaking scenario with the courage of its kinky convictions. (This is a love story, after all, and not a platonic one.) But whatever real emotional connection the film establishes between these two unlikely partners comes entirely from Hawkins, because she’s essentially gushing at a special effect, not a character. Likewise, any attempt to read this impossible love as a metaphor for once and future taboo relationships—like the one Jenkins’ lovelorn gay bachelor yearns to establish with his handsome crush at the local diner—runs into the problem that Jones’ fishman is, to quote said bachelor, a “wild animal.” The romance is in quotation marks: two souls abstractly connecting across lines of propriety and presumably incompatible DNA.
Again, the actual animating force of this lushly told bedtime story is Del Toro’s swooning cinephilia, splashed across every available screen-within-the-screen, and expressed through black-and-white musical fantasy sequences, lavish throwback period detail, and the accordion whine of Alexandre Desplat’s wistful cornball score. Thankfully, Del Toro’s most sentimental movie by at least 20,000 leagues still contains some rejuvenating oddball moments and flashes of grotesquerie, like the way Shannon’s cold-blooded G-man keeps yanking at his reattached, rotting digits, or how the fishman, otherwise sympathetic, manages to hungrily break a certain cardinal rule of crowd-pleasing. Remember, this is the same director who’s taken a repeated, twisted pleasure in putting adorable moppets in mortal danger; here and there, we catch glimpses of the perversity of his more wicked genre experiments, like last year’s extraordinarily crafted Crimson Peak and the buckets-of-blood franchise entry Blade II. The beastliness offsets the beauty nicely, like splotches of grisly red on the film’s lustrous, sea foam-green color palette.