Finely attuned to the motivations of both gods and monsters, with plenty of room left over for ordinary humans, Guillermo del Toro’s films are as uniquely his own as anything from David Lynch or Tim Burton. Consider Cronos, del Toro’s debut, which he made in his native Mexico while still in his 20s. The clockwork-crammed visuals match the characters’ obsession with a golden scarab that promises immortality—but only in exchange for blood. Or think back to 2006’s chilling, phantasmagorical Pan’s Labyrinth, set in fascist-dominated Spain but subtly referencing the contemporary war on terror, as its young heroine runs a gauntlet of supernatural tasks to escape the horror of real life. Then there’s the deeply weird Hellboy saga, in which he paints an oddly familiar world gone wrong and clearly identifies with a memorable group of “freaks” trying to save humanity from itself.
After a few recent letdowns (Pacific Rim, Crimson Peak), del Toro’s singular vision is back in all its glory with The Shape of Water. Set in 1962, this dark fable revolves around a mute cleaning lady and a tortured amphibious merman, both confined, albeit in different ways, to a military-run research facility. The movie is financed and released by a major American studio and stars familiar faces including Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon and Octavia Spencer, but its expressionistic set design and dreamlike underwater sequences (some created “dry for wet,” with actors strung on wires in a room full of smoke and theatrical projections to simulate water) make it as idiosyncratic as del Toro’s early works made in Spain and Mexico.
Just days after he accepted the Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion award, del Toro spoke with Playboy about The Shape of Water’s surprising relevance. “I set the movie in 1962 because it’s the kind of year Americans fantasize about when they say they want to ‘make America great again’—to go back to a time that never really happened except as a celebration of the white man’s prosperity. It was a world where everyone talked about the future, the space race, jet packs. After 1962, Kennedy got shot, that ‘little winnable war’ Vietnam exploded and that dream of the Kennedy era, Camelot, ended with a dead king. That’s what the movie is saying: There was discrimination, arrogance, violence and misunderstanding toward racial and sexual minorities as blatant as it is today, in our era of post-truth. To me, all that rhymes very well with the capture of a dark creature from South America.”
Del Toro’s $19.5 million movie is in love with the big-screen iconography of the past. The misfit friends played by Hawkins and Richard Jenkins live above a struggling revival-house movie theater, and flickering imagery from 1930s and 1940s musicals saturates both their souls and that of the movie. Hence the fondly sentimental love story, though this one’s equipped with some of the most unusual intimacy ever filmed.
“I’m not attracted to either the predominant version of Beauty and the Beast—the super cleaned-up version where they never have sex—or the perverse but not exactly bestiality thing,” explains the director. “I don’t dwell upon the act of love as perverse or titillating but as matter-of-fact. The creature and the girl love each other; they screw, and the next morning she tells her girlfriend how it was. The creature and Sally Hawkins’s character have a beautiful encounter.”
Meanwhile, the heartless federal agent (Shannon) who lords over the facility is trapped in a marriage in which he must wash his hands before he can touch his wife, who in turn must remain completely silent during their lovemaking. “I find that horrifying,” del Toro says.
The notion that the most monstrous creatures may lurk behind veneers of normalcy rings loud and clear through del Toro’s body of work. “Desire is an incredibly forgiving act,” he says, “but denying desire is incredibly perverse.”