The Uses of Disenchantment: Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water

By Adam Nayman

Accepting the Golden Lion at Venice for The Shape of Water, Guillermo del Toro magnanimously offered this piece of advice to young filmmakers: “Have faith in whatever you have faith in.” This bit of winner’s-circle tautology was surely not meant to be condescending. As with his fellow awards-ceremony-orator Lin-Manuel Miranda’s observation at the Tonys that “love is love is love,” del Toro’s platitude seemed to come, like every other incessant, perhaps only incidentally self-aggrandizing public expression of his cinephilia, from an honest place. Besides, it’s churlish to be annoyed when nice guys finish first.

Del Toro’s front-runner status is undeniable, and a top prize at a major film festival puts even more distance between him and a new cohort of art-horror hybridists faithfully following his example, if not quite yet nipping at his heels. Twenty-five years after his ingenious, expressionistic debut Cronos (1993)which is still an absolute hoot by the way, and the most persuasive expression of its maker’s faith in monsters as mascots and metaphors—del Toro looms like a benign kaiju on either side of the Atlantic, if not the Pacific Rim.

The title of a 2014 Palgrave MacMillan anthology parsing the director’s output in terms of style and sociopolitical import (sample chapter: “Between Fantasy and Reality: The Child’s Vision and Fairy Tales in Guillermo del Toro’s Hispanic Trilogy”) is on point: Transnational Fantasies. Part of what’s at stake in this particular filmmaker’s ascendancy is the attractive, reassuringly auteurist idea of a culturally specific but globally saleable vision. More than Bong Joon-ho, Park Chan-wook, or his buddy Nicolas Winding Refn (and distinct from an English-language contemporary like Peter Jackson, whose own lo-fi breakthrough didn’t enter the marketplace saddled with subtitles), del Toro has spearheaded the gentrification of genre cinema. The there-goes-the-neighbourhood moment was the 2006 release of Pan’s Labyrinth, a Spanish Civil War-era fantasia that was also a model transnational co-production. The critical narrative was that, after decamping to America (at the invitation of Miramax) to helm slightly eccentric studio product like Blade II (1999) and Hellboy (2002), del Toro returned home to apply his expanded skill set (and bankability) to a more “personal” project. Pan’s Labyrinth was duly sold in the US as an exotic import demonstrating to Hollywood hacks how neo-Spielbergian wonderment should be done. In this at once lofty and modest context, the film’s nightmarish monster known as the “Pale Man”—an elongated cipher with eyeballs crammed into his palms—appeared as the ideal avatar for del Toro himself: a detail-oriented filmmaker dealing in “handmade” aesthetics.

Pan’s integration of showmanship and seriousness—the latter signified by pitting a plucky little girl against a slavering fascist stepfather and symbolically sacrificing her on an altar of altruism—proved convincing to most eyes. (I myself slightly prefer the similarly themed but less ornate The Devil’s Backbone [2001], which has a few pretty good scares to go along with its allegory.) Tip-toeing a fine line between sturdy, Bettelheimian “archetypes” and mouldy dramatic (and ideological) clichés, del Toro showed enough fancy footwork that in some precincts Víctor Erice’s masterpiece The Spirit of the Beehive (1974)—a film that the younger filmmaker humbly admitted was “part of [his] genetic makeup”—was duly invoked. But even a superlative book-length analysis like Mar Diestro-Dopido’s BFI Classics entry on Pan’s Labyrinth (itself a by-product of the film’s accelerated canonization) fails to alleviate my nagging skepticism that the film’s function follows its form—that its politics are a pretense for production design.

It’s maybe telling that ever since Pan’s Labyrinth made him an art-household name in the US—along with the other two-thirds of the self-proclaimed “Three Amigos,” Alejandro González Iñárritu and Alfonso Cuarón (AGI would be the Chevy Chase of this threesome, as if you needed to ask)—del Toro has swapped out such specifics for superfluous sequels and attempted franchise tentpoles. If the Grand Guignol gestures of Crimson Peak (2015) were slightly more enjoyable than the massively scaled smash-’em-ups of Pacific Rim (2013), both films felt perched perilously on the verge of late Tim Burton-ism: indulgently subsidized rambles through their maker’s particular comfort zones.

And speaking of comfort zones, the Art Gallery of Ontario recently unveiled the exhibition Guillermo del Toro: At Home with Monsters (originally mounted at LACMA), which essentially invites visitors to move through a room-by-room re-creation of the director’s Los Angeles-based property “Bleak House.” Mixing artifacts from del Toro’s film sets with a sprawling private collection of books, illustrations, and sculptures, it’s essentially a luxury-class man-cave—a testament to a lapsed Catholic’s faith and its profitability. Belief is free to anybody who wants it, and at this point in his career, del Toro can afford his own house of worship.

The curatorial risks of juxtaposing authentically Gothic ephemera with prop department tchotchkes are real, and an ungenerous attendee might say that At Home with Monsters is just so much strategically mounted kitsch—a Planet Hollywood outpost crossed with a Hot Topic. (I’ve rarely seen so many high-school kids at an AGO show, most of whom took their sweet time exiting through the gift shop.) However dubious it might seem to so brazenly mainstream a gallery space (and thereby implicitly argue for the enduring aesthetic worth of storyboards from Hellboy [2002]), del Toro, it should be said, earns the benefit of the doubt. His eloquent appreciations, in the exhibition’s didactics, of writers like Lewis Carroll, Edgar Allan Poe, and Mary Shelley—whose Modern Prometheus, in its iconic Boris Karloff incarnation, is given pride of place in the show, just like in The Spirit of the Beehive—testify to his sincere thoughtfulness about literature, folklore, and popular art, as well as their relationship to his own practice. Full credit is due here to GDT for serving not only as the face of the AGO’s exhibition, but also its clear underlying intelligence: let the record show that he is an authoritative, attentive, and enthusiastic chronicler of his own enthusiasms.

All of which brings us finally to The Shape of Water—a movie that, upon reflection, seems to me to be among del Toro’s worst, even as it is being lined up by critics, festival juries, and its Oscar-mongering distributor as his crowning achievement to date. This is not a wilfully perverse or provocative statement, and it’s not as if I can’t see what people admire in this story of a mute, lonely custodian (Sally Hawkins) who forms a powerful emotional—and later, romantic and sexual—bond with an amphibious fish-man being kept prisoner in a secret government facility. I’ll say again that del Toro is a smart guy, and the combination of elements at play here—encompassing magic realism, creature-feature tribute, sexual transgression, and a despairing social critique that is (wait for it) as applicable to the here-and-now as it is to the film’s early-’60s American setting, which has been painstakingly re-created by an art department that should probably be clearing shelf space for statuettes—is promising and ambitious. There is craft here, and intelligence, and plenty of its maker’s vaunted, self-professed faith in monsters, both as marquee attraction and metaphor. But there is also an airless, self-adulatory quality to The Shape of Water that not only spoils the fun but reverses it, so that every ostensibly enchanted gesture becomes an alienation effect.

As multiplex postmodernists go, del Toro is more efficient than Quentin Tarantino (who always either annotates his borrowings or makes them deliberately obscure as a challenge to cinephile attention spans) or even his friends the Coen brothers, with their arch name games and literary in-jokes. Yet while del Toro is typically more interested in digging into the archetypal roots of narrative rather than in cultivating a hothouse of references, he kowtows pretty significantly in The Shape of Water towards a single text: Jack Arnold’s Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), whose namesake is obviously the model for the merman played by Doug Jones in Shape. With his rubbery physique and perpetually frozen facial features, Creature’s gill-man (played by Ben Chapman on land and stuntman Ricou Browning in the studio tank) cuts a tragic, hapless figure, and Arnold’s film extends him evident sympathy: it’s made clear that his territory is being carelessly invaded by vainglorious Americans scientists, whose hope of returning home with a cryptozoological curiosity in tow is no nobler than Carl Denham’s exploitative expedition in King Kong (1933).

Given that Shape’s fish-man (referred to in the credits as “The Asset”) has been transported to Baltimore from somewhere in South America, under the watchful and brutal supervision of Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), it’s possible that del Toro and co-writer Vanessa Taylor actually mean him to be Arnold’s Amazonian gill-man (who already had some close encounters with human civilization in Revenge of the Creature [1955] and The Creature Walks Among Us [1956]). As in the Arnold film, in Shape del Toro means to capture a spirit of solidarity with the Other, but—like Peter Jackson in his overwrought 2005 gloss on Kong—he overdoes things considerably. Instead of thrilling guiltily to the gill-man’s doomed, racially coded pursuit of alabaster-skinned leading lady Julie Adams (whose obliviousness to her admirer’s floating presence while they swim a few metres apart anticipates the opening scene of Jaws [1975]), in Shape we are positioned alongside Hawkins’ mousy, put-upon Elisa as she becomes increasingly attracted to the facility’s prisoner, literalizing (and banalizing) the complex sympathy we have with Creature’s gill-man or Kong’s eponymous ape.

More than even Pan’s Labyrinth, The Shape of Water illustrates the gap between the “imaginativeness” associated with the GDT brand—i.e., his fixation on lavish bric-a-brac—and del Toro’s paucity of real storytelling imagination. His respect for conventions is claustrophobic: every single beat of the plot is telegraphed, from Elisa’s tentative, E.T.-style first contact with the Asset, to the plan she hatches with her friends to rescue him from his torturous internment, to the moment that Strickland reveals himself as the story’s true, grotesque “monster.” It’s tempting to see this predictability as a conscious artistic choice, echoing the broad, easily graspable dramaturgy of a fairy tale. But that doesn’t ameliorate the laborious boringness of actually watching it all play out, nor the many lapses in basic narrative logic (why does nobody in a bustling workplace ever notice a janitor getting intimate with a supposedly top-secret scientific discovery?), nor the simplicity of the script’s various subtexts.

An opening voiceover places the action of Shape “a long time ago now, in the last days of the reign of a handsome prince”—this nod to Kennedy’s Camelot is del Toro’s idea of subtlety. The Cold War-era setting is steeped in prefab paranoia, and we’re meant to recognize Elisa as heroic because she doesn’t succumb to that fear: she isn’t afraid of the threat the Asset might represent to the American Way of Life, since her own is so marginal. Still, it’s not enough for del Toro that his heroine is an underdog; she also occupies the moral high ground in every one of her interactions with Shannon’s irredeemable Strickland, and Hawkins leans into this saintliness with an eagerness that’s off-putting. Everything about the characterization is pat, starting with how Elisa’s muteness literalizes the idea that, as a service worker and a woman, she doesn’t have a voice; “it kind of gets me going,” says Strickland, referring to her silence and the submission that he thinks it symbolizes.

There is nothing Shannon can do with his part as a leering, racist, dingus-swinging asshole except clobber it; as with Pan’s revolting fascist villain, Strickland isn’t permitted the kind of dimension that would make his antagonism of the Asset (or of Elisa) interesting or disturbing. Linking this military man’s doctrinaire authoritarianism to Eisenhower-era fantasies of prosperity (he goes out early in the film to buy a Cadillac) isn’t provocative, nor does it really score the sort of anti-MAGA points it’s going for; it’s simply banal, and so is the way that Elisa’s friends—closeted artist Giles (Richard Jenkins) and African-American co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer)—act as avatars for other ostracized cohorts. The material’s interpretive lens gets narrowed down to a fine, politically correct pinpoint. An atrociously written and staged scene where Jenkins’ shy Giles is rebuffed by a homophobic soda jerk congratulates the present-tense audience for their own finer feelings; Zelda, meanwhile, acts mostly as Elisa’s personal hype-woman, existing only to help her out and psych her up. (It will take a braver critic than myself to suggest that the character’s stock sassiness is some sort of self-reflexive commentary.)

The Shape of Water ends the way you’d expect, and not just because its final scenes are prophesied via Jenkins’ lugubrious opening voiceover. Del Toro’s belief in his own abilities to give audiences exactly what they want under the guise of challenging their expectations is justified, because he’s had practice: the death of the young heroine in Pan’s Labyrinth is a particularly perverse form of crowd-pleasing. Similarly, the self-congratulatory moral of Shape’s story is “love is love is love”—although what the love between Elisa and the Asset consists of beyond sexual gratification (since they barely communicate otherwise), or what it does for their friends (who remain stranded and marginalized in a divided country on the verge of total upheaval while the happy couple decamps for Atlantis), is a bit confusing. (Maybe the gay guy and the black woman are just happy to help their pals live happily ever after.) The Shape of Water is meticulous in a meretricious way: it’s a solemn, elegant, and effective hard sell, skilfully peddling pieties about history and fantasy, and the self-aggrandizing idea that the latter can be a balm for the former. “The movie is an antidote to now,” del Toro told The Hollywood Reporter—but in a world already being run on dangerous fantasies, the last thing we need is another faith healer.