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Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water is the year’s most sentimental fish romance

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Welcome to Cheat Sheet, our brief breakdown-style reviews of festival films, VR previews, and other special event releases. This review originally appeared on the site in September, in conjunction with the film’s opening at the Toronto International Film Festival. It has been updated for the film’s theatrical release.

Writer-director Guillermo del Toro has always been fascinated by ghosts. Sometimes those ghosts are literal — in his movies Crimson Peak and The Devil’s Backbone, they’re the shades of the dead, actively seeking vengeance against those who wronged them. In other films, like his Hellboy movies or Pacific Rim, the ghosts are more metaphorical: representations of unfinished business, traumas that haunt people, or family connections that won’t go away. In Pan’s Labyrinth, the past takes on multiple dangerous forms; in Cronos, it’s just one aging man. This is the theme that connects all of del Toro’s work: the way people carry the past around, and need to move past it to become complete people.

But in his latest film, The Shape of Water, his obsession with the power of the past takes on its warmest and most benign form to date. Here, for once, the dead forms who haunt the living aren’t malicious, confused, or angry. They’re much too busy singing and dancing to take a personal interest in the world they’ve departed. They’re the stars of classic movie musicals, and they do haunt the film, giving it form and structure. But the film’s protagonists aren’t trying to escape the past. They’re embracing its sentimentality, its innocence, and above all, its romance.

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What’s the genre?

Fantasy romance, with a strong, sweet overtone of movie-musical.

What’s it about?

Happy-Go-Lucky’s Sally Hawkins stars as Eliza, a mute woman with no family or past. She lives according to a pat, regimented schedule, which largely revolves around her job and looking after her lonely gay neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins). Work for Eliza involves listening to the nonstop patter of her chatty best friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer), and mopping up bathrooms and labs in a secret government facility. The film is set in the late 1950s, the space race is in full swing, and Eliza and Zelda’s employers are obsessed with the Russian advantage in space, and the question of how to get ahead or shut Russia’s program down.

Then one agent, the grim Strickland (Michael Shannon) captures a South American fish-man (played, of course, by del Toro’s favorite monster-embodier, Doug Jones). The creature, somewhere between a bigger, more intimidating version of Hellboy’s Abe Sapien (also played by Jones) and the Creature from the Black Lagoon, is chained and abused, and Eliza instantly sympathizes with him and begins bonding with him. Meanwhile, Giles gently pursues a young, muscular counterman at his local diner, tries to get illustration work in a world that’s moved away from his Norman Rockwell style of art, and obsessively watches old black-and-white musicals like That Night in Rio and Hello, Frisco, Hello. These films give The Shape of Water a constant backdrop of nostalgia and melancholy romance, two things that heavily influence Eliza as she approaches her monster with longing instead of fear. Meanwhile, Strickland approaches it with sadistic fury, and plans to see it vivisected — ostensibly for vague reasons involving the space race, but mostly because he’s more of a monster than it is.

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What’s it really about?

This is a Guillermo del Toro film. It’s about the past. Specifically, it’s about Eliza’s mysterious, inscrutable past, and how it affects her present choices. It’s about the way Zelda’s sullen husband isn’t the handsome young man he used to be, and how he’s become a cranky tyrant who expects her to endlessly cater to him because of their shared history. It’s about the way Giles hangs onto his youth and is baffled by the present, where he’s a tired old relic whose skills are passé. And it’s about those emotional, sweet old musicals, where everyone seems endlessly cheery and fulfilled. It’s telling that among the main characters, the ruthlessly evil Strickland is the only one who seems to be thinking about the importance of the future — specifically, a future where his two-kids-and-a-house-in-the-suburbs version of America is the culturally dominant idea, and filthy, inexplicable things like Eliza’s fish-friend have been wiped out.

Is it good?

For audiences who like erotic fairy-tales, fantasy, musicals, and Guillermo del Toro in general, it’s unbeatable. The visuals in particular are marvelous, starting with the dreamy opening scene — seen in the trailer — where Hawkins sleeps in a fully furnished underwater room where nothing seems particularly fixed in place. Del Toro has always been a strong visual stylist who puts intense colors and elaborate settings and costumes on the screen, and here, once again, he gives his story a lush setting and intense tone that both wobble between the breathtakingly beautiful and the grotesque.

The grotesque, in particular, takes a couple of forms in The Shape of Water. There’s nothing conventionally erotic about Jones’ fish-man, who secretes a thick slime, has razor-sharp claws, communicates only in clicks and gurgles (some supplied by del Toro himself) and requires nauseatingly polluted water to survive. (Seriously, the chemical additives that make water suitable for him also make it look like chunky green vomit. Del Toro is not out to ease viewers’ stomachs here.) And Shannon as the villain is just as revolting in different ways. He’s obsessed with a certain kind of pure Rockwellian Americana — sitting in his suburban ‘50s home with his catalog-perfect housewife and two kids, watching The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, he snarls under his breath, “This is America.” But he’s also a gleeful torturer with his own dark erotic obsessions, and due to an accident with the fish-man early in the film, part of his hand is literally rotting off.

No one will accuse del Toro about being too subtle in his intentions here — Shape of Water is broad and forceful about its symbolism. It’s certainly unmissable that its protagonists are, respectively, a disabled woman, a black woman, and a gay man, while its antagonist is a white man vocally obsessed with purity and patriotism, but hypocritical and monstrous about his own behavior, particularly around sex. All of this is going to be too strident and pointed for some viewers, particularly those who aren’t predisposed to love the kind of nostalgic sentiment del Toro has around the movies. This is the same kind of swoony, romantic vision of Hollywood’s past that shows up in films like The Artist, Hugo, and Wall-E, and filmgoers who rejected those movies have no business here.

But for those capable of falling into the spell del Toro is casting, The Shape of Water is a breathless film, anchored by Hawkins’ visible, ardent longing for connection, and her fierce defiance when the things she loves are threatened. Her performance alone would be reason enough to embrace the film, and the supporting cast is tremendous— particularly Jenkins, with his prickly fussing, and Michael Stuhlbarg as a sympathetic Russian spy. It’s always clear where The Shape of Water is going, from those opening moments that give away its intentions. But how it gets there, and how it channels its love for the past into its strange and haunting present, is an endless and wonderful surprise.

What should it be rated?

There’s a fair bit of decorous but unabashed nudity, erotic situations, torture, and a ton of blood. This isn’t one of those nostalgia-worshiping fish-romance action-thrillers made for kids. It’s a pretty comfortable R.

How can I actually watch it?

In America, The Shape of Water hits wide theatrical release on December 8th, 2017.

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