Almost anybody who has grown up watching monster movies knows the heartbreak of falling in love with a doomed, misunderstood creature. Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein doesn’t mean to drown the little blind girl in the river—he simply presumes she’ll float, like the daisies the two have been tossing from the shore. And one King Kong or another has met his demise simply because a woman—a winsome Fay Wray, a foxy-sweet Jessica Lange—has captured his simian heart. Monsters can’t survive in our world largely because they don’t understand the rules. We sympathize with them because so often we don’t understand the rules either.
Guillermo del Toro understands monster love better than any other living filmmaker, and his new movie, The Shape of Water—premiering here at the Venice International Film Festival and opening in the United States in early December—is about the finest love letter any movie monster could hope for. Sally Hawkins plays Elisa, a young woman living in early 1960s Baltimore. Elisa is mute—she's been unable to speak since childhood. She makes her living as part of the nighttime cleaning staff of a top-secret government research facility. (Octavia Spencer is marvelous as her co-worker Zelda, who happily chatters the worknight away, filling Elisa’s ears with complaints about her husband and off-the-cuff aphorisms like “Short people are mean!”)
Elisa lives alone in an apartment above an old movie palace—its owner laments that almost no one goes to the movies anymore, content to stay at home in front of their TV sets—and looks after her friend across the hall, out-of-work commercial illustrator Giles (Richard Jenkins, crabbily charming). The two pass the time watching old movies on Giles’s television. They delight in Bill Bojangles Robinson’s stair dance in The Little Colonel; Carmen Miranda’s outsize smile and even bigger fruit-laden headdress fill every inch of the small screen. These stars of the past are part of Giles’s and Elisa’s present: Giles is gay, but the prevailing attitudes of the time keep him closeted. And Elisa, orphaned and set apart by her inability to speak, has never quite belonged anywhere. It’s as if time, in its hustle toward the allegedly brighter future, has left these two and their romantic ideals behind.
One day an evil government lackey in a conservatively cut suit, Michael Shannon’s Strickland, brings a very special specimen to the facility. Elisa watches as Strickland and his minions wheel in a giant metal canister filled with water. When she peers inside, it’s almost love at first sight—or, at least, what she sees fills her with curiosity and a nascent feeling of kinship. Later, she’ll befriend the magnificent being inside, who has been captured from the Amazon and is said to be a god to the indigenous people there. And when we finally get a look at him, we can see why.
This monster—portrayed with supreme elegance by Doug Jones, the actor, previously a contortionist, who played Abe Sapien in Del Toro’s wonderful duo of Hellboy movies—quickly becomes Elisa’s monster, and ours too. Slender and muscular, with sleek coppery skin streaked with iridescent green, he’s like the Creature from the Black Lagoon reimagined by Rockwell Kent. His ruffled gills are like the delicate underside of forest mushroom. His thigh muscles are as chiseled as an art deco woodcut. But his eyes are his most sensual feature: Mournful and dark, they’re searching for a thing he hasn’t been able to find, either trust or love or a mixture of both.
With The Shape of Water, Del Toro has conceived an adult fairytale with overt erotic elements. He doesn’t shy away from imagining Elisa’s desire, as well as her love of beauty and her disappointment in all that the real world has to offer her. Del Toro’s version of 1962 Baltimore is hardly a total fantasy. The Cold War and the violent pushback against the Civil Rights Movement in the South aren’t just lurking in the background as images from TV; they nudge their way into Elisa and Giles’s everyday life as well.
The only element that mars The Shape of Water is its occasional descent into cartoonishly banal views of the evil of mankind. Del Toro hits the hammer on those notes a little too hard (though not as hard as, say, Bong Joon Ho does in his recent “Aren’t humans horrible?” screed Okja). Cat lovers should note that Del Toro breaks faith—slightly—with the audience in one scene, though it may be helpful to keep Frankenstein and his daisy-confusion in mind. And while Shannon is a terrific actor, it may be time he laid the bug-eyed villain roles to rest.
But there’s enough magic, and extraordinary visual imagination, to smooth the edges of the movie’s problems. The Shape of Water opens with a gorgeous underwater reverie, complete with a floating, sleeping princess, that sets the tone for what we’re about to see. Its final image suggests total weightlessness and joy. The script, written by Del Toro and Vanessa Taylor, from a story by Del Toro, riffs on Hans Christian Andersen’s "Little Mermaid" and Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve’s Beauty and the Beast, but it has its own distinctive soul.
Del Toro’s last feature, Crimson Peak, had a spectacular, florid lunacy. The Shape of Water is quieter and more poetic, largely thanks to the power of its actors. Hawkins, in this nearly silent performance, is wonderful. A scene where she tries to convey her despair to Giles in sign language has a Lillian Gish-style intensity. And Jones—also in a nearly silent role—is remarkable. His creature is a nonhuman in so much pain that he reminds us of all it means to be human. The performance is more like dance than anything, a muscular ode to the idea that freedom and grace can be won, but only after we break out of caution and fear. The Shape of Water leads us deep into a dream. Waking up, and re-entering the everyday world, is the part you have to steel yourself for.