In the opening sequence of “The Shape of Water,” Guillermo del Toro’s lovely genre-bending love story, there’s a fire at a chocolate factory, prompting a character to note that the smell of toasted cocoa in the air blends “horror and delight.” And while the line might be a tad on the nose, it’s a perfect prompt for the gorgeous and grotesque romance that del Toro (and co-writer Vanessa Taylor, “Hope Springs”) unspools.
There are elements of “Beauty and the Beast,” “E.T.,” “Amélie” and “The Creature from the Black Lagoon” at play here, but as always, del Toro takes the stories and the images that formed him and crafts them into something utterly his own. There’s something here for lovers of all kinds of movies — even silents and musicals — but the director transcends mere pastiche to craft a work that feels like the product of our collective film-going subconscious.
Unlike other filmmakers with an eye to recreating the past, del Toro puts his movie love at the service of, rather than a replacement for, his characters and his story. You can dissect all the beautiful moving parts — the evocative set design, the themes of outsider-dom vs. conformity, the color palette and the judicious use of period music, to name just a few — and you’re still left with a heart and a soul that permeate throughout.
Sally Hawkins stars as Elisa, who works the graveyard shift as a cleaning woman at an imposing-looking laboratory. In her tiny apartment above a movie palace, her days are regimented and repetitive (including a daily moment of bathtub self-pleasure while her hard-boiled eggs are cooking). Her only friends are co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer), who talks enough for the both of them, and her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), a lonely gay illustrator with a crush on the counterman at their local diner.
One day, scientist Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) and security chief Strickland (Michael Shannon) arrive at the lab with a top-secret asset: an “Amphibian Man” (as the credits call him) captured from a river in South America, where the locals revered him as a god. Elisa immediately bonds with the creature, befriending him at first with eggs, and later with jazz records, communicating with him by teaching him sign language.
It’s 1961, so of course the creature becomes the object of a Cold War tug-of-war between Americans who want to vivisect him and Soviets who want to kill him before the Americans can learn anything from him. Elisa must summon her resources to save him — and, along the way, to understand the depths of her feelings for him.
“The Shape of Water” understands a fundamental truth about 1961 America: the furniture, the outfits, the cars and other elements of design looked great, but society was ugly. The film tells a color story, from the lab’s New Look green to an awakened Elisa’s red high-heel shoes, but there are no rose-colored glasses in place: TV news shows civil rights protesters being blasted with fire hoses, lunch counters turn away black patrons, and Giles rightly notes that he was born too early or too late to lead his life as a gay man in this country.
(Of course, that color story would have worked even better had del Toro and Taylor hadn’t had two different characters point out that green is the “color of the future,” but it’s a rare self-explanatory lapse in an otherwise touching screenplay.)
This is a Fox Searchlight release, so naturally the musicals-loving Giles is always turning his TV dial to vintage classics from the Fox library starring Betty Grable, Carmen Miranda and Alice Faye; the latter’s “You’ll Never Know” becomes the plaintive soundtrack of the orphaned Elisa’s love for the Amphibian Man. Hawkins communicates so much without speaking, and there’s never any preciousness about the emotional nakedness she conveys with her every facial expression.
Jenkins gets to be funny and anguished, and his droll line readings make a potent counterpoint to Hawkins’ silence. And you know that Spencer wouldn’t take on another cleaning-lady role — Strickland at one point refers to Zelda and Elisa as “the f–cking help” — if it didn’t give her the opportunity to be intelligent and witty and heroic. And who but Shannon could give a pill-popping, candy-chewing, female-harassing, Cadillac-coveting, Norman Vincent Peale-reading atomic-age sadist like Strickland such vivid villainy?
As for Doug Jones, his fish-man may call to mind his performance as Abe Sapien in del Toro’s “Hellboy” movies, but here he really gets to unleash his gifts as a mime, allowing him to access a full range of emotions and desires without ever uttering a word. This is a motion-capture performance that stands alongside Andy Serkis’ work in the “Planet of the Apes” films as the apex of this relatively new form of acting that contains endless potential.
“The Shape of Water” is a romantic fable for adults and a heartfelt saga for everyone who understood why Kong died loving Fay Wray. Even if you find del Toro as someone who loves old movie genres from a distance, there’s no denying the whole-heartedness with which he plunges into this underwater tale.