“Understanding is love. There’s no difference, really,” says Guillermo del Toro. Despite it being a bright, warm morning in Beverly Hills, he’s wearing a heavy, cozy-looking sweater—and peeking through glasses so thick they distort his eyes. “That’s why most of the things we hate are things we don’t understand. We live in a time where divisions are done by ideology. It makes us easier to control, but on top of that, they have sold us on responsibility.... They tell you, ‘All your problems are them’—immigrants, illegals, a race, whatever it is—and you go, ‘Of course it is. My problem is not me or what I do. The problem is they are taking my job. They are the guys that are this and that. They are the criminals.’ No, no! It is an illusion. It is not us and them. It is only us. If you understand a person, you love the person.”
Del Toro thinks of his latest film, The Shape of Water, as being about “love and understanding.” That’s true, but those who dive deeper will find more: The Shape of Water is strange, sweet, and wonderful, and easily the greatest film ever made about a mute cleaning lady who falls in love with an amphibious fish man.
A fairy tale set in 1962 (“It happened a long time ago, it seems,” the film begins, narration floating over imagery both familiar and surreal, “in the last days of a fair prince’s reign”), The Shape of Water finds Elisa (Sally Hawkins) working the graveyard shift at the Occam Aerospace Research Center—a cold institution that marks a time, del Toro says, “where America is looking forward. Everything [is] about the future... and here comes a creature from the most ancient past.”
“The story of Beauty and the Beast, it can be very contentious. Because Beauty is a perfect, pretty princess who lives on a pedestal—she’s perfect in every way. So the Beast needs to transform into a boring prince for them to get together.”
That creature—wide-eyed, gilled, and played with strength and inquisitiveness by Doug Jones—is imprisoned at Occam. Locked in a tank and chained in a pool, he’s prodded by a reverent scientist (Michael Stuhlbarg) and tortured by a dominating military man (Michael Shannon). When Elisa finds him, she recognizes a kindred spirit—and feels an attraction that’s met with varying degrees of enthusiasm from her dubious coworker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and her artist neighbor, Giles (Richard Jenkins).
“It’s about taking something that is completely unknown, and seeing how different people look at it,” says del Toro. “One guy looks at it as a filthy thing that came from South America. The other one sees this thing as a miracle of nature and science. The other one sees it as a possible god that is doing miracles. And another one sees it as an essential part she’s been looking for all of her life, without knowing.”
Whether they’re human or... whatever the hell the creature is, The Shape of Water’s characters are played by some of the best actors working today—all of whom give whole-hearted, nuanced performances, anchoring a story that can feel bigger (and weirder) than life. The characters’ depth is reinforced by del Toro: From Cronos to Pan’s Labyrinth, his stories are marked by an earnest affinity for outcasts—which, in the falsely idealized America of the 1960s, includes the mute Elisa, the closeted Giles, and the Black Zelda.
“When you are an immigrant, you become very sensitized to anybody else who is marginalized,” says del Toro, who was born and raised in Mexico. “Whatever it is—it can be a physical handicap, a race thing, an economic thing. You feel a kinship with any invisibility or any silence, socially.” (Del Toro’s kinship extends to the amphibious: Those sticking around for the end credits will notice he’s co-credited for “creature vocals.”)
But as important as this film’s characters are its colors, each loaded with meaning: del Toro’s favorite amber glows throughout, but more important to this tale are its sterile, industrial greens and rich, vibrant crimsons, be they the red of Elisa’s shoes or the blossom of blood in water. The words are loaded, too, thanks to dialogue from del Toro and co-writer Vanessa Taylor: One of the first things Giles asks Elisa is if she noticed the chocolate factory down the street caught on fire. “You smell that?” Giles says. “Toasted cocoa. Tragedy and delight, hand in hand.”
Those are two of the oversized emotions in The Shape of Water, but beneath the film’s broad strokes are eerie subtleties and half-glimpsed moments. Like the best of del Toro’s work, rewatching the film is a rewarding pleasure; few cinematic worlds are this rich, and few couples are as captivating as Elisa and the creature. Neither speaks a word, yet they tap into the power of the fairy tales that del Toro holds dear—and one fable in particular.
“The story of Beauty and the Beast, it can be very contentious,” del Toro says. “Because Beauty is a perfect, pretty princess who lives on a pedestal—she’s perfect in every way. So the Beast needs to transform into a boring prince for them to get together.”
In del Toro’s retelling, things are different: Elisa, though beautiful, “is not a pretty princess on a pedestal,” he says. “It’s very clear that she is a very complete woman.... And the Beast does not transform in order to get her. Because love is not transformation. It is acceptance and understanding.”