The modern master of monsters has delivered his crowning achievement.
To understand Guillermo del Toro you’d have to be from another planet. It is hard to fathom the wavelengths he operates on. From his earliest endeavors behind the camera with 1993’s Cronos, all the way to 2017’s The Shape of Water, del Toro has used fantasy elements for personal stories. Del Toro uses wondrous creations to illuminate harsh realities that would otherwise fall on deaf ears. That is why his accomplishment with The Shape of Water has been the signature moment of his illustrious career. The Shape of Water touches our hearts with its bewildering story of love between species, but it also empowers minorities against overwhelming odds. No one else could’ve brought this to life with such passion.
Del Toro has shared movies that have influenced him and there is a handful that he mentions often. Those films are 2001: A Space Odyssey, Taxi Driver, Frankenstein, and The Spirit of the Beehive. Familiarity with the first three films is strong among film aficionados, but The Spirit of the Beehive has specific relevance to del Toro. It has been an influence in every movie he has ever directed. In an interview with The Criterion Collection, del Toro said, “Whatever I do in my life, two shadows are cast upon my own, one is James Whale’s Frankenstein, and one is Víctor Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive, and they are both one and the same.” Not only are the two films connected by Frankenstein being featured in Beehive, but the nature of the film ran deep for del Toro. He sees himself as that six-year-old girl, sitting in a dusty theater, watching Frankenstein, and having his entire world opened in front of his eyes.
The Shape of Water borrows from Beehive in the way it weaves the tribulations of the voiceless within a delicate story of love and conviction. The premise for The Shape of Water follows a mute woman through her mundane life as a cleaning woman for a government laboratory. That changes when she comes in contact with a Fish Man that brings her unparalleled joy. There is an eclectic cast of characters including the aforementioned mute white woman, an amphibious creature, a gay white man, and a woman of color. All four individuals face adversity against the power of the straight white male. The time period for The Shape of Water exists during the early 1960s but could apply to how minorities are still treated today.
Guillermo del Toro has created these delicate backdrops for his stories before. In The Devil’s Backbone, he used the symbolism of a defused atomic bomb to signify the underlying horrors of an orphanage. Even though the bomb was defused, it left an uneasy feeling of danger that could ignite at any point. In Pan’s Labyrinth, del Toro uses magical realism as a girl’s escape mechanism from the nightmare of the Spanish Civil War. The movie often changes from reality to fantasy on a dime, but this provides a reprieve from the war escalating in the background.
Both Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth owe a lot to The Spirit of the Beehive, and similarly, so does, The Shape of Water. Beehive used otherworldly elements to tell the coming-of-age story of a girl. The girl, Ana, believed Frankenstein was real and would appear in front of her one day. The reality is that the country was deep into the Spanish Civil War and deserters of the war were making their way into tiny towns just like Ana’s. By masking the realities of the civil war, with the fantasies of a child, director Victor Erice provided the blueprint for del Toro’s cinematic future. Erice used the fantasy elements of Beehive to get his political statement past the eyes of censors. The Shape of Water uses fantasy to mask a statement of equality that would’ve divided audiences, if not hidden from plain view.
In the spirit of Oscars season, there is a reason to revisit the 2007 Oscars telecast. That show had the Three Amigos of Cinema up for awards in the same evening: Guillermo del Toro had Pan’s Labyrinth, Alfonso Cuarón had Children of Men, and Alejandro González Iñárritu had his film Babel up for multiple awards. That was just the beginning for the three historic filmmakers as Cuarón and Iñárritu have won Best Director in recent years for Gravity, Birdman, and The Revenant. Could now be the time for del Toro to join his peers? If del Toro wins the Best Director Oscar, one of these men will have won the honor for four of the last five years. It is fitting that The Shape of Water, which exudes so much of del Toro’s signature, should bring him the acclaim he deserves. No one else could make a film like The Shape of Water, one in which fantasy brings the supernatural into reality and has a way of shattering barriers.