Venice + Toronto 2017: Del Toro’s The Shape of Water
Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water, premiering in Competition in Venice and screening as a Special Presentation in Toronto, is a “ravishing, eccentric auteur’s imagining, spilling artistry, empathy and sensuality from every open pore, [offering] more straight-up movie for your money than just about any Hollywood studio offering this year,” writes Variety’s Guy Lodge. “This decidedly adult fairytale, about a forlorn, mute cleaning lady and the uncanny merman who save each other’s lives in very different ways, careers wildly from mad-scientist B-movie to heart-thumping Cold War noir to ecstatic, wings-on-heels musical, keeping an unexpectedly classical love story afloat with every dizzy genre turn. Lit from within by a heart-clutching silent star turn from Sally Hawkins, lent dialogue by one of Alexandre Desplat’s most abundantly swirling scores, this is incontestably Del Toro’s most rewarding, richly realized film—or movie, for that matter—since 2006’s Pan’s Labyrinth.”
“It feels less of a fevered artistic exercise than his other recent work,” finds the Guardian’s Xan Brooks, “more seamless and successful in the way it orders its material. Yes, Del Toro’s latest flight of fancy sets out to liberally pastiche the postwar monster movie, doffing its cap to the incident at Roswell and all manner of related cold war paranoia. But it’s warmer and richer than the films that came before. Beneath that glossy, scaly surface is a beating heart.”
“There is unmistakable, idiosyncratic care poured into every frame of The Shape of Water, saturated with del Toro’s offbeat compassion and looping, pattern-recognition intelligence,” writes Jessica Kiang at the Playlist. “[M]otifs recur and DP Dan Laustsen’s striking images often refer back to earlier shots, with an insouciant, incidental ease that could only feel so effortless in such a meticulously considered world.”
“The era in which Water is set—Cold War 1960s—informs the aesthetic, but the director and designer Paul Austerberry have couched it in a baroque-colored, industrial-like setting, a dripping netherworld, a fairytale land existing within that time zone yet eternal,” adds Screen’s Fionnuala Halligan.
“The bright-eyed heroine of the piece is Elisa (Sally Hawkins), who lives alone in an apartment above a crumbling repertory cinema in downtown Baltimore, and works nights as a charlady at the pointedly named Occam Aerospace Research Centre, where the strange goings-on defy a neatly razored explanation,” writes the Telegraph’s Robbie Collin. “Elisa is, for any number of reasons, the kind of role that comes along just once a lifetime. Hawkins meets it with the performance of one.”
“When a secret classified experiment is rolled into the lab in a water tank, Elisa responds not with fear but with fascination and, upon closer inspection, empathy,” writes David Rooney in the Hollywood Reporter. “The fact that the expressive, other-worldly being is played by Doug Jones, who appeared as the similarly amphibious Abe Sapien in del Toro’s Hellboy movies, is an additional sign of the personal thread connecting The Shape of Water to the director’s distinctive body of work. . . . Del Toro and co-writer Vanessa Taylor (Divergent) seamlessly weave in points about societal intolerance toward otherness that pertain no less to a nonhuman discovery than to gay or black Americans in the early 60s.”
“For the all the social insights and cultural asides, the film never feels digressive,” writes Kate Erbland at IndieWire. “For all the veering from one genre to another, neither does it feel rough. Del Toro’s tight directorial control sees to that.”
Updates: “Unlike other filmmakers with an eye to recreating the past, del Toro puts his movie love at the service of, rather than a replacement for, his characters and his story,” writes Alonso Duralde at TheWrap. “You can dissect all the beautiful moving parts—the evocative set design, the themes of outsider-dom vs. conformity, the color palette and the judicious use of period music, to name just a few—and you’re still left with a heart and a soul that permeate throughout.”
“Is anyone making cinema as lusciously beautiful as Guillermo del Toro at the moment?” asks John Bleasdale at CineVue.
Update, 9/3: “It is not outside the realm of fair judgment to suggest that Guillermo del Toro has been a little off the boil in recent years,” writes Rory O’Connor at the Film Stage. “Over-scheduling can do that, even to the best of us, but The Shape of Water . . . does represent a clear return to form. This is bolstered to no small degree by the fact that it is, in essence, a fairytale and the singular Mexican director—along with his physically-gifted performer Doug Jones—has always been at his most punky and creatively audacious when working in the confines (or lack thereof) of that particular genre. As his enchanting, imaginative latest film proves, it’s great to have him back.”
Updates, 9/6: Writing for Cinema Scope,Jay Kuehner notes that “it is precisely a Mexican-born artist, working within Hollywood, who’s making the U.S. a better place to be by questioning just who and what belongs there, creating a fluid frontera in which a perceived monster is no monster at all, and a woman working a low-wage job, deprived of a voice, is free to love—and fuck—whomever or whatever she wants. . . . Such symbolic characterizations would be simplistic if it weren’t for del Toro’s sense of play taking precedence over didacticism. The politics here feel like the consequence of, rather than the reason for, a non-normative love story that is nevertheless a variation on Beauty and the Beast.”
The BBC’s Nicholas Barber suggests that we “think of [the film] as Amélie meets The Creature from the Black Lagoon—except that they also meet The Little Mermaid, some Hidden Figures and the inhabitants of La La Land. Oh, and they bump into James Bond, too. And then there are various characters from the Coen brothers’ back catalogue. That probably sounds like three or four meetings too many, but don’t worry—The Shape of Water is unmistakably a Guillermo del Toro film. Indeed, I’d be inclined to call it the Guillermo del Toro film: the fantasy masterpiece that blends all of his fondest obsessions into one sumptuous whole.”
“Though full of childlike whimsy, the film is, among other things, about sex,” writes Vanity Fair’s Richard Lawson. “Sex as release, as communication, as connection both confirmed and denied. This is not where I expected Guillermo del Toro to take us with a monster movie. But take us he does, and in so doing offers a balm to the lovelorn and marginalized. He’s made something of a queer movie, a sensitive portrait of love on the fringes that is no less real and serious for all its transgressiveness.”
“It’s the movie that I like the most,” del Toro tells Josh Rottenberg in the Los Angeles Times. “It’s this one, then The Devil’s Backbone, then Pan’s Labyrinth, then Crimson Peak, and so on and so forth. That’s the order for me—it doesn’t mean people have to agree. It’s sort of the aim-and-target quotient for a filmmaker—did it land where I wanted it? This landed exactly where I wanted it.”
Update, 9/7: “The music of the film is crucial to the fairy-tale atmosphere,” writes Kristin Thompson. “It is entirely evocative of the late 1950s-early 1960s era, and not just in the brief scenes from real Hollywood musicals that would have been showing on TV at the time. At the press conference Alexandre Desplat (who also scored Suburbicon, competing here in Venice) said he wanted to emphasize emotions even while creating a musical flow like water, without emphatic moments. When del Toro, working as usual very quickly, showed Desplat a rough-cut of The Shape of Water a week after shooting ended, the composer referred to Nino Rota and Georges Delerue, two masters from the era of the story who were skilled at creating overtly charming soundtracks. The result is a buoyancy (to continue the water theme) that helps counteract the grimness and threat in many of the scenes.”
Update, 9/11: “The Shape of Water is del Toro’s best and most complete film,” declares Mike Ryan at Uproxx. “It feels like the culmination of everything he’s done before has finally come together to give us this gem.”
Updates, 9/14: “The Shape of Water has exquisite design, voluptuous romanticism, and piquant playfulness,” writes Fernando F. Croce in the Notebook. “It also has an overall rigidity that unfortunately works against the fluidity of its fantasy realms and camera movements. Like James Whale, del Toro’s fascination and sympathy are always with those marginalized, transgressive outcasts tagged ‘monsters.’ Yet his tendency to neatly schematize his characters, to pin them down like butterflies, tempers his poetry.”
For Jake Cole at the House Next Door, “where Crimson Peak’s clutter of dilapidated, rotting luxury felt like the jumping-off point for the Mexican filmmaker’s imagination to run amok, here del Toro appears restrained by the concrete and steel of an underground research facility. The setting yields an inherent coldness that the film must work to overcome, and for the first time in his career, del Toro visibly struggles to reconcile his premise with its execution.”
This is “one of those movies that seems to imprint its gushing love affair with other movies—with the flickering euphoria of classic cinema—onto every image,” writes the A.V. Club’s A. A. Dowd. “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.”
“I tried to surrender to its romance,” sighs David Edelstein at Vulture. “Hawkins doesn’t overdo the ingenuousness: Her Eliza is sly and subversive, with an energetic libido. Shannon invests the disgusting Strickland with every drop of dignity he can muster, almost making this deluded zealot a tragic figure. Jenkins is a sweetheart. Michael Stuhlbarg is movingly conflicted as a doctor with a big secret. But the characters are always drifting back and forth over the line that separates archetypes from stereotypes. (See Brad Bird’s Cold War–set The Iron Giant for the converse — the stereotypical-made archetypal.) And while Del Toro ups the gore and—disarmingly—the sex quotient, the story goes exactly where you think it will. It’s an utterly lovely, complacent movie, too comfortable with itself to generate real dramatic tension.”
At Ioncinema, Nicholas Bell finds that “a prominent streak of sentimentalism paired with a familiar formula tends to detract from some otherwise daring flourishes, including an unprecedented eroticism largely absent from del Toro’s previous films.”
“As someone still recovering from the bizarre man-genetic experiment sex scene in Vincenzo Natali’s 2009 film Splice, I approach most interspecies couplings onscreen with a fair amount of trepidation,” admits Marshall Shaffer at Vague Visages. “To del Toro’s credit, the pairing never feels gross in the slightest because he approaches their love with a disarmingly tender earnestness. He’s pulling from screen musicals as much as science-fiction in their relationship, a pairing which at first seems odd until del Toro finds the common ground in their use of dream-like spaces to find the fulfillment that escapes star-crossed lovers in reality.”
“Reams could be written about cinematographer Dan Laustsen’s perpetually gliding camera, Paul D. Austerberry’s green-tinged production design, and the netherworld Disney perfection of every setting from the diner to the cinema to the automobile ownership,” writes Sophie Monks Kaufman for Little White Lies. “Del Toro has conjured a vision as complete and perfectly contained as a snow globe, with a languorous pacing reminiscent of Todd Haynes’s Carol. Yet admiring a film’s craft is not the same as falling in love with it.”
“It’s like it was shot in [del Toro’s] traveling museum exhibit, and I, for one, didn’t want to leave,” writes Flavorwire’s Jason Bailey. “What a divine movie this is.”
And for Brian Tallerico at RogerEbert.com, it’s “one of [del Toro’s] deepest, most complex, most rewarding, and flat-out beautiful films. It is enchanting and moving, the kind of movie you want to see again the minute it’s over.”
Updates, 9/15: “The raves are in and who can argue with them?” asks Sight & Sound editor Nick James. “The Shape of Water is that big romantic all-out imaginative coup (with a sly political undercurrent) that so many of us have been waiting for from the director. . . . The plot is lightly labyrinthine. It goes by like the breeze because you’re locked into the characters in a way that you perhaps were not in Crimson Peak. Interest from Soviet spies in the creature adds another subplot played for irony and black humor. Though this is an auteurist piece for sure, you want to laud everyone involved, since the excellence is all-round: Dan Laustsen’s cinematography has the swoop and whirl at times of Gregg Toland’s work on The Magnificent Ambersons; Paul Denham Austerberry’s production design is classy, editing and music choices are both startling and apt.”
“For audiences who like erotic fairy-tales, fantasy, musicals, and Guillermo del Toro in general, it’s unbeatable,” agrees Tasha Robinson at the Verge.
At the Playlist, del Toro tells Gregory Ellwood about getting drunk before pitching the movie to Sally Hawkins.
Update, 9/16: “Thankfully,” writes Luke Gorham at In Review Online, “del Toro has focused on the micro here, populating his film with some of the most memorable characters he’s written; some delicate visual flourishes; and an outré, irony-free love story. It’s the small, rather than the big, that impresses most here, and it proves a welcome return to the director’s modest origins.”
Update, 9/18: “Resembling a children’s movie for grown-ups while reining in Del Toro’s worst tendencies, its hybrid form holds clear appeal for another year when the highest-grossing films replace humans with costumed superheroes and animated creatures, our postmodern costume dramas,” writes Film Comment editor Nicolas Rapold.
Venice andToronto 2017 indexes.For news and items of interest throughout the day, every day, follow @CriterionDaily.