In order to understand The Shape of Water, it’s imperative that you understand the mind that shaped it. Guillermo Del Toro was born into an orthodox Catholic household in the colorful Mexican city of Guadalajara in 1964. From a very early age, he would play around with his father’s Super 8 camera and make imaginative short-films with props lying around the house, and with his family members as performers. His early experiments with film-making, at some point, would have made him realize that his limited abilities were falling short in helping him materialize the visions in his head. This very aspect may have pushed him to pursue the study of special effects where he got the chance to work with the legendary special-effects artist Dick Smith. During Smith’s illustrious career, he worked on Don Corleone in The Godfather (1972), made the classic effects for The Exorcist (1973) and transformed Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver (1976), to name a few. You can only imagine how transformative those years would have been for young Del Toro.
By 1997, Del Toro had already established a name for himself as a Film-maker who didn’t really conform with the conventional style of story-telling. His first film Cronos (1993) had already become a cult hit and by a young age of 33 he had been commissioned by Miramax to direct Mimic on a budget of $30 million. Besides the challenge of directing his first big-budget film, Del Toro was about to go through another incident that would change his life forever. In the midst of filming Mimic, Del Toro’s father Federico was abducted by Mexican kidnappers. By then, Del Toro had put all of the production money into the film and had nothing to pay as ransom. During this trying period, James Cameron came forward to help him get his father back safe. Cameron and Del Toro had met during the pre-production days of Cronos and had struck up an instant friendship which remains to this day.
After that harrowing incident, the Del Toro family left Mexico for good and moved to America. As a young man who lived in his own world of limitless creative freedom, it angered him that a bunch of thugs could bring down a god-loving family to its knees, changing the course of their lives forever. Bittered by this forced exile, Del Toro’s filmography became a symbol of anti-establishment. In a quote on his critically acclaimed film, Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), Del Toro says – “Much like fairy tales, there are two facets of horror. One is pro-institution, which is the most reprehensible type of fairy tale: Don’t wander into the woods, and always obey your parents. The other type of fairy tale is completely anarchic and anti-establishment.”
“Much like fairy tales, there are two facets of horror. One is pro-institution, which is the most reprehensible type of fairy tale: Don’t wander into the woods, and always obey your parents. The other type of fairy tale is completely anarchic and anti-establishment.”
This very philosophy flows like an undercurrent in The Shape of Water. However, this time, Del Toro decides to break the age-old stereotypical template of Romance. Based in a dystopic 1950s version of America, the story unfolds in the backdrop of the cold-war where manic scientists are working relentlessly in grungy labs trying to get a technological upper hand over the Russians. Elisa Esposito is a mute who works as a janitor in a clandestine lab where strange experiments are an everyday occurrence as portrayed by Elisa’s co-janitor friend Zelda – “The things that go on in this place !” One evening, as Elisa and Zelda are cleaning, a man named Strickland brings an 8 foot long tank into one of the chambers, accompanied by the security in-charge. Intrigued by their apparent secretiveness, Elisa takes a peek into the chamber which seems to be filled with water. A strange webbed hand hits the glass for a second and disappears into the tank. Strickland instructs the security to be cautious with what he refers to as “the asset”, and adds that they would need to vivisect it to gain an edge in the Space-race.
Elisa, however, is undaunted by Strickland’s restrictions and sneaks into the chamber, bringing boiled eggs for the amphibious creature that now lives inside the large tank. As difficult as it may be to understand, Elisa is enamored by the mystery of this creature and falls in love, even though this ‘love’ is not not your run-of-the-mill everyday definition of love. As Elisa learns that Strickland plans to cut open the amphibious man, she decides to help him escape out of the lab. With the help of a sympathetic Russian spy who is posing as a scientist in the lab, Elisa succeeds in getting him out of the lab and into her home where she fills up her bath tub with water and salt to emulate the sea-water that he is used to living in. However, Strickland is mad with rage as his property has been stolen from right under his nose and pledges to get the creature back at any cost.
The Shape of Water is deeply inspired by one of the first films Del Toro has watched as a child – Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), rewriting the premise to tell a story which would be sympathetic to the creature without deeming him a monster. Sally Hawkins’s portrayal of Elisa as a kind-hearted, mute is a class in acting with emotion, with the natural expressiveness of the human nature. In a scene, as Elisa is sitting across the table from the creature just a day before she has to bid him farewell to sea, she imagines herself singing a happy song which lifts her very soul. This is the only time, when we hear her proverbial voice in the film until it switches back seamlessly to the table scene and you still feel her voice when she has gone quiet. Her neighbor Giles, played by Richard Jenkins, is an aging, balding homosexual man who has lived a lonely life. Through his eyes, he sees the creature as no different than himself – someone who stands out among others and may never be accepted into human society. This emotion at the backdrop of the rise in anti-semitism in America today, is deeply relevant. Strickland, played by Michael Shannon, is an unrelenting megalomaniac who loathes the creature and classifies it with the Gooks (people of south-east asian descent) and Russians. He is no different that the Neo-Nazi groups that walk the streets freely now. Del Toro’s film is a mirror into the flaws of human society that is so hellbent on conformity and homogeneity that any outsider is persecuted for the sole reason that he looks or speaks different.
The art-direction is characteristic of all of Del Toro’s films and is reminiscent of Pan’s Labyrinth where a young girl Ofelia is guided into the labyrinth by a mythical creature called the Faun to help her achieve immortality. Doug Jones, who has played most of Del Toro’s creatures like the Pale Man and the Faun, also plays the Amphibious Man here, adding the creature to Del Toro’s classic list.
The Shape of Water has garnered 13 Academy nominations this year including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actress, and is slated to take the Oscar season by storm.
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