Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water explores two archetypes of the human male through the eyes of a mute female protagonist. It speaks of our times, where the love of a woman may be the best compass for the kind of men we want to be
In the men’s toilet of a US Government laboratory from the 60s, the character of Zelda Fuller played by the large-eyed Olivia Spencer, rues how the smartest men in her country can be so bad at hitting the target – so bad that they manage to get spots on the ceiling. The exasperation of the human female with the male of her species seems as well-placed in 2018 as it does in 1962, the peak of the Cold War, in which Guillermo del Toro’s Oscar winning The Shape of Water is set. We live in times where despite all our claims of progress, exposure, and pace of life, we hear of women being ignored, underrated, misunderstood, and mistreated all the time. The same attitudes of patriarchy that tied women down to homes seem to have moved into workplaces. Exploitation based on gender exists openly, across countries and industries. Why is it so difficult for the man, now in the 21st century, to understand the value of a woman? Or is it going to take a different kind of man? A merman, maybe. Guillermo del Toro, now 53, has been steadily gaining his own following across the globe since his breakthrough 2006 film Pan’s Labyrinth, which he followed up with the superlative visual intelligence of Pacific Rim.
His dark interpretations and depictions of fairytale scenarios motivated by base human emotions is an art on its way to perfection, and with The Shape of Water, he brings a touch more simplicity to the filmmaking compared to his earlier ventures, and mixes genres from Noir to Monster Seduction in a palatable, imaginative and modern mix. What the Indian viewer in me found to be a tad-bit melodramatic seems to have caught the fancy of the Academy – after all these do look like acerbic times, when we would probably be better off if we heard more fairytales. So at one end of the spectrum is Colonel Richard Strickland played by Michael Shannon, square-jawed and Uh-merican, with a suburban family and new aquamarine Cadillac, an understood acceptance of hierarchy and sucking-up, and a twisted desire for silence during sex. His latest ‘asset’ for the government is from the jungle – an anthropomorphic amphibian demigod who can heal, but also be mistaken for a dumb creature – the other end of the spectrum. Strickland’s clearly dark character tries best to control and dominate the creature, for lack of empathy and understanding. Del Toro mentions that in the monster movies of the 1950s, Strickland would have been the all-American hero. In 2018, it is time for different ideas.
For separating the two is the sheer love of a woman, Elisa Esposito, played by the expressive Sally Hawkins, minus voice. A vocally challenged janitor at the facility holding the creature, she chances upon the merman, makes friends with him through daily bribes of eggs, falls in love with him and eventually manages to get him out. Of course, this is an interspecies sort of love, reaching its climax with an ingeniously shot love scene between the two, in a bathroom filled with water. What is critical to the film though is the heart of the creature, which in its simplicity, connection to nature and ability to just be itself, steals the love of the strong-willed woman protagonist. Playing on the borders of human, animal and myth, Doug Jones in his meticulously crafted prosthetic suit sends clear visual signal that it is not human, but the physically expressive Jones ensures that there is a certain liking for the character, who is technically the male lead in this love story.
The last of his species, lost in a strange land, but having found true love and strength and hope with it, the creature represents a man not driven by vagaries of ambition, but a more grounded, natural existence in accord with his being. It so seems by coincidence that directors from Mexico have been doing exceptionally well at the Oscars over the past few years. Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity and then Alejandro Innaritu’s Birdman were the standout films of their years with respect to cinematic treatment and narrative. This may be because simple, well-scripted Hollywood stories seem to have reduced to a trickle in the jumble of the big-budget VFX comic-book films, with their billion dollar worldwide collections. Guillermo del Toro comes close on the heels of these acts, There are no elaborate VFX environments, the film has been shot mostly on a couple of sets.