Friday, January 19, 2018


Guillermo Del Toro never seems to mind if you guess the end of his movies. He's a storyteller who is more about the travel than the arrival at port. So when you see the bad guy you don't just assure yourself of his likely end you begin to savour getting to know his darkness and his violence before that happens. And when the credit sequence travels through an old apartment underwater and we see our heroine gently descending to the couch where she will wake in a few moments we have almost all the information on her as well. We also know we want to follow her around.

So we do. Elisa is mute but not deaf and cleans at a nightmarish industrial research complex. It's the cold war and you don't want to know what they're doing in there. Well, unlike you, Elisa is curious and often needs the maternal wrangling of her friend Zelda to keep her out of trouble. One day she touches a grim looking metal capsule with windows and jumps back as a hand darts to the glass from inside. She is observed by the head of security, a bipedal contained volcano played by bipedal contained volcano Michael Shannon. He's curious, too. About Elisa, though, he already knows what he wants done with the thing in the capsule.

And Elisa? She is lonely and alien from almost all the people she meets in this world. She is happy to learn the dance steps from oldie movies on tv that her paternally older neighbour shows her while the cinema below her apartment shows cheddar-lite toga epics in Technicolor. Her simple mien masks a deep forlornness she has learned to live with. But here is a creature even more alien but strangely kindred. He responds to kindness and music and learns her sign language without effort. In her world it seems just her luck to be so magnetically drawn to a the creature from the black lagoon. But all she registers is joy. 

There's a lot of plot to go with this and you can see that for yourselves. Again, the joy Del Toro offers is in the travel. And what a carriage he invites us to. He has long struck his own flag in the same style continent as Terry Gilliam, Jeunet and Caro and Tim Burton and his films always give us gorgeous worlds where even the ghastly and the terrifying have a clear appeal. Elisa's apartment is all rich wood panels and vintage for the era. In contrast, the American dream home that Strickland rules over like a Don Draper trogladyte is all Sears Catalogue, too new to be dirty, murmuring with old tv shows and covert sex. It's the same world that's squeezing Giles and his meticulous artwork out of his profession. He, too, is alien. When we discover why his fridge is filled with slices of indigestible assembly line pie slices, we see a spark flash up from the collision of it. But that spark is a bad one, ill tasting and poisonous. 

And between these conflicting worlds lies the fable. If you are tempted to think of a retelling of Beauty and the Beast you're getting close but there's a lot more on the table. First, this is a grown ups version. Remember the masturbation at the start? There's much more on that level of candour. Strickland's sexual predation is both fearsome and timely. This is not only intended exclusively for an adult audience it feels as though Del Toro has accepted this side of his mythmaking more gravely than in Pan's Labyrinth. The bad guy in that was already marked by being a Falangist monster. He wasn't going to get an ethical lift at any point. We don't expect this of Strickland, either, but we do get deeper into his thinking. We don't hate the snake for biting but our caution at the sight of it is the lesson. Strickland is as much corporate man as he is aparatchik. On the right side, he's the good guy. A late dialogue with his military boss reveals as much about his place in the order as it does about his motives. Michael Shannon (who has only disappointed me in the strained cuteness of Pottersville but everybody else did, too) delivers a constantly threatening force to his character. His craft has the same artisanal finish as Giles's painted ad.

Finally, there is the central pair. Sally Hawkins commands us without speaking a word through almost every scene in the film, drawing us into her alienation and membrane of cope. Doug Jones as the unnamed creature has an equally difficult task as a performance from within a suit (Del Toro, tellingly, chose an elaborate costume over pure mocap and CGI). His performance, for all of its detail, is doomed to be qualified as being against the odds of disguise. Nevertheless, his physicality is there on screen, athletic and balletic, genuine.

Del Toro has served us another adult fairy tale, this time with the extra flavour of his experience with his own vision and how to work that within the larger industrial system (more than a little of what we see on screen feels like his own commentary on this). He was notable as being among the one for them and one for me auteurs. That Shape of Water lifts the game from the misstep of Crimson Peak so very high that the pressure (with added Oscar murmurs) must feel intense. I cannot wait for his next.

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